Opinions on cranberries tend to be strong one way or the other. Some of us love the tart-sweet flavor of the berry in sauces or molds, perhaps with orange sections and walnuts. Cranberry lovers can’t wait for this time of year when holiday dinners inevitably include some kind of cranberry side dish to accompany the traditional turkey or ham.
For others, cranberries are too tart or too sweet. And for some people, the idea of eating anything molded, even with oranges and walnuts folded in, is too much to bear.
Clearly, there’s no cranberry consensus. There is, however, the universal understanding that the cranberry is a pretty special food for reasons other than its taste. In fact, Vivian Chi Hua Wu, a University of Maine assistant professor of food science and human nutrition who is one of the world’s foremost cranberry researchers, believes the cranberry is a kind of superfood with the power to fight food poisoning and improve food safety.
“There are stories out there and people are starting to realize this,” Wu said last week from Washington, D.C., where she was attending a conference with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Initially, people started to look at [the cranberry’s] antioxidants, and now people are realizing there are other kinds of benefits, too.”
Wu became interested in the cranberry while she was a student at Kansas State University. Before moving to Maine in late 2003, Wu researched her new state’s natural resources and learned about its blueberries and cranberries.
Both berries are known to be high in antioxidants. Where there are high levels of antioxidant compounds, Wu said, there are usually high levels of antimicrobial compounds. It fit perfectly with her own work, which includes groundbreaking research into methods of discovering the presence of contaminants in food.
The cranberry’s health benefits are no secret. American Indians used cranberries for medicine, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, which added a cranberry expert in 1998. The antioxidants in the cranberry have been known to fight urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers and gum disease.
According to the Maine Cranberry Growers Association, one cup of raw cranberries contains 13 milligrams of vitamin C, which is approximately 14 percent of the recommended daily allowance.
The cranberry also may have indications for a variety of conditions such as cancer, diabetes, age-related mental decline and cardiovascular disease.
Wu’s major contribution to cranberry lore has been the discovery that the berry has the ability to inhibit or even kill food-borne pathogens such as listeria, salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, and E. coli 0157:H7.
There are, of course, artificial chemicals that kill bacteria in food. The benefit of the cranberry is that it’s found in nature — a big consideration for the movement toward natural and organic foods.
“We’ve found we can extend shelf life and kill bacteria with a natural product. [Nowadays], people like all kinds of natural things,” Wu said. “Hopefully, those natural antimicrobial compounds can be used to replace chemical antimicrobial compounds.”
When added to ground beef, Wu found, the cranberry retarded the growth of bacteria. She tested different levels of cranberry extract added to the beef, creating a sort of cranberry burger, on 50 University of Maine students. The burger containing 5 percent cranberry extract by weight was the most popular in terms of taste com-pared to a control hamburger with no cranberry extract, although Wu said she preferred the burger with 7½ percent cranberry extract.
“In our summary of the study, the 5 percent cranberry has no significant difference [in taste] compared with the control,” she said. “People actually liked it. And if we tell consumers [about the benefits of cranberry], the consumer will like it even better.”
Those who might be put off by the idea of adding cranberry to ground beef, Wu added, should be reminded of the seasonings and condiments such as ketchup and mustard we add to enhance the flavor of foods.
Blueberries, Wu has found, have similar antimicrobial effects as cranberries, although they lend a darker color when added to foods.
Maine isn’t one of the bigger cranberry producers in the nation, although there were 12,448 barrels harvested in the state in 2007, according to numbers compiled by the Cooperative Extension. Wu said the biggest cranberry state in the country seems to be Wisconsin, which is where many of the processing plants in Massachu-setts and New Hampshire get their cranberries.
Still, Maine does play an important role in the story of the cranberry’s growth in popularity. Sullivan native Marcus Urann was one of three founding members of Ocean Spray, a company that has become synonymous with the cranberry, which formed in 1930 as a grower-owned marketing cooperative.
Cranberries are sold in the mass market in a variety of forms, and people can benefit from cranberries no matter how they’re ingested, Wu said. A glass of juice in the morning or a slice from a mold on the Thanksgiving table will work as well as the raw berry.
Dunking a Thanksgiving turkey in cranberry juice isn’t the best way to kill bacteria, Wu cautioned. Cooking is still the best way to eliminate the potential for pathogens. But a cranberry glaze on a turkey cooked to specifications? Sounds like a superfood.
The cranberry gospel has now spread — Wu said she gets phone calls from companies, such as chicken producer Tyson, who are interested in her cranberry research — and Wu likes this time of year, when she can walk into a store and see the cranberry figuring prominently alongside the turkey, sweet potato and pumpkin.
“I get excited when I see new cranberry objects,” Wu said. “I recently saw in a grocery store a cranberry marinade or sauce. I don’t know whether [the manufacturer] read my study, but I always get excited when I see that.”