Food of the Month with Catherine Saxelby

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Cranberries – is the jury still out?

Catherine Saxelby

The tart, bright red cranberry is a cousin of the blueberry. Fresh or frozen, like other berries, they are low in carbs and calories and virtually fat free. They are a good source of vitamin C along with some folate, potassium and beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in the body for healthy eyes. They rank highly in terms of antioxidant content and are particularly rich in the OPCs, a group of flavonoid antioxidants also found in blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and other blue-red fruit. These phenol-based antioxidants have been shown to protect the heart and blood vessels from the fatty build-up that leads to heart disease.


Cranberries and cystitis: Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) have a long history as a remedy in traditional medicine. Over the past 15 years, cranberry juice and supplements have been extensively studied as an aid to help prevent recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs) and incontinence, especially in older women. UTIs or cystitis (inflammation of the bladder), is usually caused by E. coli, a bacteria commonly found in the intestines. It appears that cranberries’ anti-bacterial action comes from a group of plant chemicals called Oligomeric Proanthocyanidins (OPCs) or simply proanthocyanidins which stop bacteria from ‘sticking’ to the bladder wall and multiplying. Fewer bugs mean less likelihood they can multiply and take hold. The Cochrane Review on cranberries reports that ‘there is some evidence that cranberry juice may decrease the number of symptomatic UTIs over a 12 month period, particularly for women with recurrent UTIs … Further properly designed studies with relevant outcomes are needed.’

Getting cranberry’s anti-bacterial benefits: Fresh may be best, but it isn’t widely available. Some 95% of each year’s crop is processed – frozen, and made into sweetened juices and drinks, sauces and dried cranberries. Check out the recommended serving sizes and see how the calories stack up.

  • Fresh cranberries: Here’s what you get: 100 g berries provides 46 calories (194 kJ) and 8 g carbs (includes 4 g sugars mostly glucose) and 4 g fibre.
  • Frozen cranberries: This is closest most of us can get to the real thing. The packet’s recommended 100 g serving has 57 calories (240 kJ), 10 g carbohydrate (of which 4 g is sugar) and 2 g fibre. There’s nothing added so you’ll find these really tart.
  • Cranberry juice drink: The base of “Sex in the City’s Cosmopolitan cocktail (along with vodka and lime juice), cranberry juice isn’t 100% juice. Look at the labels and you’ll find that the main ingredient apart from water is reconstituted cranberry juice concentrate with added sugar to sweeten. Its final sugar content is around 12% – similar to apple juice but higher than orange juice at 8%. A 250 ml (1 cup) glass of cranberry juice drink has 123 calories (516 kJ) and around 30 g of sugar (that’s about 6 level teaspoons). It also has nearly 40 mg vitamin C (almost your day’s intake), but this is actually added to the juice as a preserving aid and to even out seasonal variations. Its GI is 52 (Ocean Spray Cranberry Cocktail). You can get an artificially sweetened light version with only 20 calories (83 kJ) and 5 grams of sugars.
  • Sweetened dried cranberries (craisins): Like the juice, dried cranberries have to be sweetened, unlike sultanas or raisins which have a higher natural sugar content. Ocean Spray dried cranberries say they’re 61% cranberries and the rest is sugar. A 30 g serve of dried cranberries provides 98 calories (410 kJ), 1.5 g fibre and 25 g carbohydrate, which is mostly the added sugars, and a GI of 64.
  • Cranberry extract: If you can’t face drinking the juice or snacking on the dried form, perhaps a concentrated extract in a pill is for you. All the major supplement manufacturers have one.
  • As for cranberry sauce – it’s great for the turkey, but it’s really like jam or chutney. Not a whole lot of nutrition. So enjoy it, but make sure you have a little cranberry with your turkey rather than the other way round.

The take-home message: For many people cranberries will qualify as a super food simply thanks to their ability to ward off chronic UTIs. But they just aren’t up there in the truly super food league that includes broccoli, oily fish and almonds.

Dietitian and popular nutrition communicator, Catherine Saxelby, is the author of Zest and Nutrition for Life


For more information on super foods and healthy eating, visit Catherine’s website: