Juice sales have fallen flat. Producers grow more berries than Americans consume. Against that backdrop, cranberry behemoth Ocean Spray has invested millions of dollars into research on the link between cranberries and UTIs — and is requesting regulators’ permission to advertise that women get fewer UTIs when they drink cranberry juice.
The move has precipitated a showdown between industry-funded science and independent critics. Many experts dispute Ocean Spray’s claim that cranberries reduce urinary tract infections.
The labels could help beleaguered growers, they say, but would do little for UTI patients — or for consumer trust in America’s food-label system.
A massive agricultural cooperative composed of 700 farms across five states, Canada and Chile, Ocean Spray has long dominated the production and processing of U.S. cranberries, turning the niche, seasonal enterprise into a multibillion-dollar industry.
To do that, Ocean Spray has invented an array of cranberry products that include canned cranberry sauce, cranberry juice cocktail and the now-ubiquitous Craisin.
Clark Reinhard, Ocean Spray’s vice president of global innovation, says the cooperative’s research has consistently shown that daily cranberry consumption reduces the risk that a woman who has had a UTI will contract others in the future. (There is no evidence that cranberries treat UTIs, and Ocean Spray does not claim they do.) The preventive effect has been attributed to a compound called proanthocyanidins, which prevent bacteria from adhering to the urinary tract and occur naturally in the fruit.
In September 2017, Ocean Spray applied for permission to make that claim on its products, including a juice that will be specifically marketed as a health beverage.
“We’ve got evidence over a long period of time that there’s a solution [to UTIs],” Reinhard said. “And so we applied for [the label claim] because it was important for us to have that connection validated, and to show customers it was legitimate.”
But some leading researchers say the science on cranberries and UTIs is still unsettled. A 2012 Cochrane review of the available literature, conducted by a team of highly regarded independent researchers, concluded that “cranberry juice cannot currently be recommended for the prevention of UTIs.”
“I think the evidence is mixed and small at best,” said Ruth Jepson, the lead author of that paper. Asked by The Post to review Ocean Spray’s petition, Jepson added that she was “not convinced by the research.”
Industry-sponsored studies have technically found that cranberry consumption prevents some future UTI symptoms — which can be caused by a variety of other conditions, including things as ordinary as nervousness.
Just last week, an industry-funded study concluded that cranberries are good for heart health.