For many Canadians, no turkey dinner is complete without the addition of cranberry sauce. The tartness from the red berries offers a perfect complement to the rich meal. But beyond these special moments, cranberries have long been thought to be an excellent way to improve health, particularly in the urinary tract.
The effects of cranberries on overall health have been studied for over a century. Back in 1914, the berries were found to be a rich source of a chemical called benzoic acid. The name may seem familiar as it's used as a preservative in many foods. When the body ingests the chemical, it is transformed into hippuric acid, which helps to keep pathogenic species, such as Escherichia coli, from growing in areas where it doesn't belong, such as the urinary tract. But while the presence of benzoic acid was thought to be useful, in terms of quantities - the number of cranberries needed to improve health - there were no answers.
In 1923, the amount of hippuric acid formed after eating cranberries was finally determined. But to get to useful levels, a person had to eat quite a bit, as much as 350 grams. When lower amounts were ingested either as berries or juice, there was little to no impact. Interest in the benefit waned such that eventually, the use of cranberries to kill pathogens was considered little more than a tale.
That view changed in the 1980s when the focus on the antimicrobial effects of the juice shifted from antimicrobial activity to prevention of colonization. Instead of outright killing, cranberry juice was found to prevent bacteria from attaching to the inside urinary tract. But this activity wasn't due to hippuric acid, it was another chemical, proanthocyanidin. It's found in many different types of plants but in cranberries, the molecule seems to be perfectly designed to protect the lining of the urinary tract.
With this information in place, the door was opened for clinical trials. As the 21st century began, studies examining the effects of cranberry juice in humans led to the same protective effect seen in the lab. Not surprisingly, this helped to rejuvenate the original belief that cranberries could indeed improve health, just in a different manner. As studies were published, daily consumption could help to fight off infections and even keep them from happening in the first place.
With the positive results continuing to come in, the scope of trials extended to include a variety of different segments of the population. As expected, positive results came from studies with the elderly, those suffering from recurring infection, and pregnancy. The only negative outcome was an apparent interaction in those prescribed warfarin; they should not drink cranberry juice while taking blood thinners.
With almost every demographic covered, the only group remaining to be tested were children under one year of age. In light of their well-known issues with urinary tract infections, they had the most to gain from a well-developed study. But until recently, little had been done to determine the effect of cranberry supplementation. That recently changed when a group of Spanish researchers revealed a cranberry extract may help to prevent infections in these young individuals.
The team examined 192 children, 85 of which were under one year of age. All had suffered from at least three episodes in their short lives. The population was divided into two separate treatment groups; one received an antibiotic known to help fight urinary infections while the other received suspension of 3% cranberry extract in a glucose syrup. Each child received a single dose daily with regular follow ups every 2 months until the study ended. This was done to determine whether cranberries would be useful over the long term.
When the results came back, the results were just as expected. Children taking the cranberry had a lower rate of infection compared to the antibiotic although when compared statistically, infants did not fare as well as children over one year of age. Even so, the data clearly supported the daily use of cranberry to help a child fight off infection was safe at any age. Moreover, in comparison to an antibiotic, to which resistance can develop, bacteria cannot stop the activity of proanthocyanidin.
Although the study focused on young children with a history of urinary tract infections, the authors suggested the use of cranberries as a preventative measure may keep all children healthy. By taking in a small amount of extract per day, a child may be able avoid infection in the first year of life and beyond. This will not only help as she grows older, but will help to relieve parents who hope to minimize any pain and discomfort in their young ones.
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