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(Updated with magazine version.)
Shellfish have one. So do bourbon, rice, and wine. Now cranberries join the ranks of foods and beverages with their own congressional caucus. The fruit’s new 17-member group is led by Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, where many U.S. cranberries are grown. Ocean Spray Cranberries, the 700-grower cooperative, is located there, too. Cranberries are a $2.5 billion business in the U.S.; Ocean Spray claimed $1.5 billion of that in 2011. “This caucus will provide a platform for the cranberry industry to educate members of Congress and the public about the health benefits of cranberries,” Brown said in a June 6 statement announcing the launch.
The caucus will be busy: Cranberry juice is in danger of being considered just another sugary drink at a time when they’re under attack. The problem, says Randy Papadellis, Ocean Spray’s chief executive officer, is that cranberries aren’t naturally sweet. So his company adds sugar to its products. Ocean Spray’s cranberry juice cocktail is only 27 percent juice. A 12-ounce glass has 12 teaspoons of sugar and 200 calories. That’s more than cola and orange juice (its sugar isn’t added), which each have 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
The Department of Agriculture is drafting nutritional standards that could ban sugary drinks, including cranberry juice, from school vending machines and menus. That would send a worrying message to the public, says Papadellis. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others, is blaming such beverages for making people fat. (The mayor is majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek.) And Papadellis says 30 states are considering a tax on beverages with added sugar. “It’s not necessarily inappropriate to point out that sugary juice is a problem,” he says. “But we’re being unfairly targeted. If we don’t respond, we’re validating what they’re saying.”
Papadellis says the health benefits of cranberry juice distinguish it from other drinks with added sugar. “The Exceptional Cranberry” is what it’s called on an industry-sponsored website, cranberryhealth.com. Industry-sponsored research suggests cranberry juice may help promote circulation, support the immune system, and maintain cellular health. It may be best known as a folk remedy for urinary tract infections, which presents some advertising challenges. “We don’t want to take away from the taste message,” says Papadellis.
The Federal Trade Commission is monitoring food companies’ claims. In May the commission found some of pomegranate drinkmaker Pom Wonderful’s ads to be deceptive and may review its marketing materials for the next five years. Pom is appealing the decision. “There’s a big difference in what we know and what you can say,” Papadellis says. “Research is under way to confirm what we already know.”
Yet some experts question the health benefits of cranberry juice. “All juices have antioxidants and vitamins. The research shows none do anything special,” notes Marion Nestle, a professor of public health at New York University. “This is about marketing, not health.”
So far, the cranberry caucus has written letters to Michelle Obama, who’s taken on the problem of childhood obesity, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In the letter to Vilsack, the congressmen wrote: “We would like to work with you to create appropriate standards to ensure wholesome cranberry products are not mislabeled as unhealthy or empty- calorie foods.”
The bottom line: The $2.5 billion cranberry industry is turning to friends in Congress to avoid having its sugar-laden juice tagged as an empty-calorie drink.