The seedy story beneath healthy cranberries

Cranberries are a superfood. They are known to fight urinary tract infections. They have anti-inflammatory properties. Cranberries promote heart health. Researchers are even exploring a potential role in reducing cancer risk. But a myopic view that sees only the nutritional value of cranberries misses the larger not-so-pretty picture.

It’s a cruel irony that so healthy a berry has endured the unhealthy violations brought on by industry’s unthinking push for production and humankind’s fixation with sugar.

Cranberries have been a staple of Thanksgiving celebrations for centuries. Harvard University served them at commencement dinner as early as 1703. A recipe for cranberry sauce appeared in a 1796 cookbook. General Ulysses S. Grant ordered his Union Army be served cranberries with the holiday meal in 1864.

Until more recent times, cranberries were typically found growing naturally in bogs or marshes long ago formed by retreating glaciers. Pockets of clay filled in with water and over time became lined with rich peat and sand. Today, most cranberry producers utilize industrial methods to meet vastly expanded markets.

Flooding bogs to facilitate the harvest is now the norm for about 95% of all cranberries. This requires an extraordinary amount of water – each acre of cranberries uses seven to ten feet of water to meet all production, harvesting and flooding needs.

Inevitably, there has been a long and slow learning curve associated with the use of so much water. The management of fertilizers and pesticides has been a significant concern. Consumer reports and nutrition gurus have been advising consumers to buy organic cranberries for years.

Cranberry associations have been working hard to find innovative new practices. But there are still loopholes in legislation and challenges with monitoring industry practices.

So here again is another instance where consumer behaviours need to exert influence. This is easier to say and harder to do, especially in the context of inflation. But in the grocery store, picking up the higher priced organic, fresh cranberries is the right move.

Admittedly, there won’t be a rush on organic cranberries because of this article. But there is new research showing that cranberries improve brain function while also lowering cholesterol. A study published in Frontiers in Nutrition reports
that people ages 50 to 80 who ate the equivalent of a cup of fresh cranberries a day for 12 weeks saw significant improvement in their memory of everyday events.

The Cleveland Clinic offers an impressive list of health benefits associated with cranberries. The most known of these is the role of cranberries in the prevention of urinary tract infections.

But did you know cranberries can also help prevent dental cavities? The same plant compounds that prevent harmful bacteria from developing in the urinary tract may be working on bacteria in the mouth.

Cranberries are high in antioxidants that help reduce inflammation. Research shows, however, that these benefits come from low-calorie cranberry juices or cranberry supplements, not high-sugar cranberry drinks, sugar-added dried cranberries, or sweet holiday sauces.

The association of cranberries with lower cancer risk follows the same logic. High fiber diets and non-starchy fruits and vegetables (like cranberries, beans, and artichokes) improve the performance of the gut in promoting good health.

If fresh organic cranberries in the local grocery store are out of reach, then cranberry supplements are an option. Natural health food stores carry a wide variety of cranberry products. The strict regulations, testing standards and verification requirements for certified supplements ensure that any pesticide residues are not in the final product.

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