Cranberries now have their own caucus to represent them in Washington, D.C., and educate about their benefits. Why the sudden interest in having a voice and presence in our country’s center? The Department of Agriculture is drafting new nutritional standards that could ban sugary drinks from school vending machines and menus. This includes obvious drinks like highly sweetened soda, but it could also ban cranberry juice, since it is highly sweetened as well.
This is concerning to those who farm cranberries, and manufacture cranberry juice. Sweetened cranberry juice could be banned from schools, but manufacturers are also worried about the message it sends to the community.
Hence, a 17-member caucus headed by Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown from Massachusetts (where many cranberries are grown) has been created to protect the interest of cranberries. I understand the gravity of the situation for those involved in the cranberry industry. However, I consider parents to be their own caucus representing the interests of their children. As a mother, my question is not about the politics behind what to ban or not to ban. My question is whether sweetened cranberry juice is truly healthy and something I want my daughters drinking on a regular basis.
First, the reason cranberry juice is sweetened is because it is so tart. This really is a tart, almost slightly bitter fruit. I should know, as I am one of those odd people who has drunk 100 percent cranberry juice before. The reason? A roaring urinary tract infection (UTI). I am unfortunately allergic to most antibiotics that can be safely taken while breast-feeding. With a bad UTI, my doctors gave me the choice of pumping and dumping for a week, or taking cranberry to get rid of it. (I was surprised to have conventional doctors recommend it!). I chose the natural route, and it was a difficult journey, but I eventually kicked the problem naturally. Cranberries contain compounds called proanthocyanidins that may prevent E. coli (the bacteria responsible for the majority of bladder infections) from adhering to the bladder wall. Drinking pure cranberry juice was important as many “cocktail” blends contain juices other than cranberry juice. (As a side note, I found out later with the help of a holistic doctor that certain herbs and other supplements can prevent and treat UTI’s more effectively than cranberry juice.)
Besides this ability to help prevent UTI’s, cranberries also contain high amounts of natural antioxidants. In fact, they contain much higher amounts than many other fruits. In one of the promotional videos on the website of the brand OceanSpray, they point out that while their dried cranberries are sweetened with sugar, they contain the same amount of sugar as raisins but twice the antioxidant levels.
That’s all good and dandy. But the question remains whether the health benefits of cranberries override the health concerns of sugar when drinking sweetened cranberry juice. Take Ocean Spray’s cranberry juice cocktail. First, it is only 27 percent juice. Then consider that a 12-ounce glass has the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar (and 200 calories). Cola and orange juice (unsweetened, since it is already sweet) contain the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories.
Furthermore, some experts question whether cranberries are that extraordinary. This includes Maron Nestle, a professor of public health at New York University. She says, “All juices have antioxidants and vitamins. The research shows none do anything special. This is about marketing, not health.”
So where am I in all of this? First of all, I am a little frustrated. I don’t see why the perfectly good cranberry has to be turned into a sugar bomb. Secondly, I am frustrated with the world of food bans, government regulations, and interest groups. I appreciate a lot of the sentiment behind banning soda and other sugary drinks from schools. It is no secret that sugar consumption is way too high for most Americans, and certainly most school children. But the fact is, I don’t really count on government agencies always making the best eating choices for my children. The main responsibility falls in my lap.
Politics aside, I can take the cranberries, and mix it into wonderful juice creations at home as part of a well-rounded diet. Or, I can just feed my children whole fruit, with the added benefit of fiber. The caucus has made clear that while, yes, they are trying to spread the good word about the health benefits of cranberries, they are also trying to protect the jobs and the economy the cranberry business supports. While I well-understand that sentiment, when push comes to shove, that’s not the primary reason I want one product pushed over others.
Whether or not I agree it is the government’s place to regulate how much soda and other sugary drinks Americans drink, I think that taking highly sugared drinks out of schools could be helpful in cutting down sugar consumption. While I understand that cranberries do have a wide variety of health promoting properties, I am not sure that juice — sweetened or not, should be considered an important part of a healthy diet.
And finally, I think good eating habits start at home. I think parents should have a voice in their local schools in regard to what is allowed in their school cafeterias. It will be interesting to see whether sweetened cranberry juice is allowed in schools once the bans take place. But meanwhile, I know that regardless of what happens there, I can help my children make good eating choices at home.
Related healthy eating story on MNN: 15 fruits you might not have heard of