One out of every two American women will experience the pain, burning, and urgency of a urinary tract infection at least once in her lifetime. The cranberry industry wants you to believe that cranberry drinks or supplements can prevent UTIs.
In 2017, Ocean Spray asked the Food and Drug Administration to approve a health claim that cranberry drinks, foods, and supplements can help prevent recurrent urinary tract infections in healthy women.
The FDA concluded that the science wasn’t strong enough. But the agency has since said that it will allow cranberry products to make a “qualified” health claim, which requires weaker evidence.
As a result, cranberry drinks and supplements can now bear a claim like this one on Ocean Spray’s website: “Consuming one serving (8 oz) each day of Cranberry Juice Cocktail may help reduce the risk of recurrent urinary tract infection (UTI) in healthy women.”
Below it, in tiny print, is the “qualification”: “FDA has concluded that the scientific evidence supporting this claim is limited and inconsistent.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action’s publisher, has argued that qualified health claims mislead consumers. Cranberry claims are a perfect example.
UTIs typically occur when bacteria make their way up the urethra and colonize the bladder. (It’s less likely that bacteria reach the kidneys, but if they do, it’s a more serious infection.)
In test tubes, cranberry extract can prevent some bacteria from binding to the cells that line the urinary tract.
But if you’ve heard that drinking cranberry juice by the quart at the first sign of a UTI can nip the infection in the bud, forget it.
Even Ocean Spray doesn’t claim that cranberries can treat a UTI. Instead, says the company, drinking cranberry beverages every day can prevent one.
“The evidence for that is mixed and weak at best,” says Ruth Jepson, a professor of public health in social science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
In 2012, after reviewing 24 clinical trials on nearly 4,500 volunteers, Jepson and her colleagues concluded that “cranberry juice does not appear to have a significant benefit in preventing UTIs.” Ditto for cranberry supplements.
Since then, a study funded by Ocean Spray and co-authored by two of its employees reported that women who were randomly assigned to drink cranberry juice cocktail every day for six months had a lower risk of UTI symptoms than women who drank a placebo.
But in another clinical trial—it had no industry funding and used lab tests to confirm UTIs—cranberry juice cocktail came up empty.
As the teeny-weeny print says, the evidence is “limited and inconsistent.”
Cup o’ Sugar?
It’s bad enough that people are misled by qualified cranberry health claims (or by claims like “Urinary Tract Health” on cranberry supplements, which aren’t evaluated by the FDA because the claims don’t mention an illness).
As it turns out, an 8 oz. glass of cranberry juice cocktail—which is typically 73 percent sugar water and just 27 percent cranberry juice—dumps roughly 5½ teaspoons (23 grams) of added sugars into your body. That’s nearly half of the Daily Value.
Just what we need: a nudge to drink sugary beverages, which lead to weight gain, in the midst of an obesity epidemic.
Want to curb your risk of a UTI? Try drinking more water or other calorie-free beverages.
Photos: nadianb/stock.adobe.com, Ocean Spray.
The information in this post first appeared in the November 2020 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.
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