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Industry-funded studies and independent research can’t seem to agree with Ocean Spray

Tim Nelson
March 19, 2018

Sure, slumping sales figures suggest that the world just doesn’t have the same appetite for Ocean Spray cranberry juice as it used to. But at least chugging the juice of everyone’s favorite bog berry can help treat UTI’s, right? Not so fast, say the independent experts.

As part of a multimillion dollar campaign to establish a link between cranberry juice and urinary tract health, Ocean Spray is seeking regulatory permission to market the fact that women who drink cranberry juice get fewer UTI’s. Given that American Urological Association data suggests that about half of all US women will suffer through one in their lifetime, the UTI claim could offer a big boost to an industry where demand struggles to keep up with supply.

“We’ve got evidence over a long period of time that there’s a solution [to UTIs],” said Ocean Spray VP of Global Innovation Clark Reinhard. “We applied for [the label claim] because it was important to us to have that connection validated, and to show customers it was legitimate.”

Among independent scientists who’ve studied the issue, however, the jury is still out. “I think the evidence is mixed and small at best,” Ruth Jepson told The Washington Post. Jepson’s 2012 meta-study concluded that “cranberry juice cannot currently be recommended for the prevention of UTI’s.” Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and elsewhere seems to agree.

The disagreement stems from differing sets of scientific standards. Ocean Spray-funded research focused solely on people who showed UTI symptoms. Independent studies have centered on those who had confirmed bacterial infections, therefore requiring a higher burden of scientific proof. The body of independent research suggests that cranberry juice can’t prevent confirmed bacterial infections.

That may explain why the FDA rejected Ocean Spray’s request for an authorized health claim about cranberries and UTI prevention. The organization is now considering a “qualified health claim”, which would Ocean Spray to use more guarded language and avoid claiming that cranberry juice “may help prevent” UTI’s. Still, some worry that consumers won’t know (or care about) the difference.

Ultimately, the UTI hoopla is just one facet of Ocean Spray’s strategy to frame cranberry juice as a healthy product. They’ve clashed with the FDA over added sugar labeling, and a new industry-backed study hopes to highlight a positive correlation between cranberries and heart health. As a New Englander, it hurts to know that what was once a humble group of cranberry growers in Hanson Massachusetts is now indistinguishable from other multinational food conglomerates who mislead the public to boost sales. But it sure doesn’t hurt as much as having a UTI though.


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