Cranberries are good for you24th November 2008
As Americans sit down to Thanksgiving dinners, cranberry sauce will be on many tables as an accompaniment to traditional meat dishes.
European settlers were first introduced to the berries by Native Americans, who survived cold winters on pemmican, a cake of cranberries, nuts and dried venison or bear meat.
Records show that both ethnic groups were using the berries for medicinal purposes early in the history of the country, including for fevers, gastrointestinal problems and swelling or inflammation.
Women have used cranberry juice to aid in preventing urinary tract infections for at least a century, believing it was the acidity that helped.
But recent studies have shown the berries to have strong antibacterial properties because of compounds called proanthocyanidins.
Two glasses of cranberry juice a day can reduce the frequency of urinary tract infections in pregnant women by up to 41%, according to a study published last month in the journal Urology.
Ten years ago, a research group led by Amy Howell, associate research scientist at the Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research at Rutgers University isolated the compounds and demonstrated how they work.
The team found that proanthocyanidins bind to harmful bacteria such as E. coli, forming a "Teflon-like" coating around them. The coating prevents the bacteria from sticking to gastrointestinal and urinary tract walls, impeding infections.
According to a 2001 study, women who drink a couple of ounces of cranberry juice daily for six months have a 20% lower risk of urinary tract infections. And a 2002 study published in the Canadian Journal of Urology found that just 20% of women who drank three glasses of cranberry juice daily for a year experienced urinary tract infection symptoms, compared with 32% of women who drank a placebo.
Proanthocyanidins also make life more difficult for the ulcer-causing bacterium H. pylori, by stopping it from sticking to the linings of the stomach and intestines.
Two glasses of cranberry juice daily for three months had a significant impact on adults with H. pylori infections, according to a 2005 study in the journal Helicobacter.
And while it is not recommended to use the juice as a mouthwash because of high acidity and sugar levels in most juice drinks, the compounds found in the berry have been shown to stop oral streptococci and other bacteria from sticking to surfaces and causing plaque.
Vitamins A, E and C, iron, calcium, potassium and antioxidants are strongly present in the berries, which also appear to have potential protective effects against cancer and heart disease.
Jie Sun, a scientist at General Mills who previously researched the fruit's anti-cancer effects at Cornell University, said cranberry impedes the growth of liver and breast cancer cells in lab dishes.
The berries may even boost levels of 'good' HDL cholesterol in overweight men, according to a Canadian study in 2006.
Too much cranberry can result in an upset stomach or diarrhoea, however, with a couple of reports indicating that cranberry juice may increase the risk of kidney stones in some people, and even interfere with blood-thinning drugs like warfarin.
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