The color of cranberries is so vibrant, so gorgeously red, it's hard to imagine them in any other hue. Yet the cranberry industry is hyping a new and altogether different color...

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The color of cranberries is so vibrant, so gorgeously red, it’s hard to imagine them in any other hue.

Yet the cranberry industry is hyping a new and altogether different color for this fruit — white. The chief attraction is its less-tart taste, while certain potential health benefits are believed comparable to those of the red cranberry.

For producers, the white berry is another way to boost consumer interest in cranberries, a North American native whose sales have been flat in recent years.

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“It’s created a lot of excitement in the cranberry industry,” said Sharon Newcomb, spokeswoman for Ocean Spray, the large grower cooperative that overwhelmingly dominates the American cranberry business.

When you picture the crimson cranberry sauce soon to brighten Thanksgiving tables, a pale version made from white berries sounds downright anemic. However, we’re not likely to see that phenomenon soon. Nor are fresh white cranberries available in stores.

What we are seeing are clear, white-cranberry juice drinks, introduced in 2001 and already multiplying.

With the latest additions, these now come either corn-syrup-sweetened, artificially sweetened or sweetened with grape-juice concentrate, and there are versions featuring white-cranberry juice alone or combined with other juices, such as peach or strawberry.

Consumers apparently have taken to the drinks, which racked up $100 million in sales in their first year, said Newcomb, whose company grows most of the country’s cranberries and produces most of the cranberry products, including the new white-cranberry juice drinks.

Washington ranks fifth nationally in growing cranberries, though the white ones are harvested in Wisconsin, New Jersey and elsewhere.

In one sense, there is no such thing as a white cranberry — or at least not one that’s botanically separate. Instead, white cranberries are simply conventional cranberries picked early, before they fully mature and turn red. In fact, when you buy fresh red cranberries you’ll sometimes see small remnants of white on some of the berries.

Unlike most fruits, which are sweeter when fully ripe, cranberries are less tart when picked while still white — that is, about two weeks early — said Newcomb.

White cranberries yield a smoother-tasting, somewhat less-tart drink than the red berries, which are so acidic they require copious amounts of added sweeteners to make them palatable. White cranberries also require sweeteners, but in somewhat smaller amounts.

Even so, the white-cranberry juice drink contains only slightly fewer carbohydrates than the red, as shown on nutrition labels, indicating sugar levels are about the same. The calorie counts are close, too — 120 in 8 ounces of the white drink, compared with 130 in the red.

Nutrition experts generally have little good to say about juice drinks, which because of added sugar or other ingredients are not pure fruit juice and are more caloric. (Some health authorities even frown on pure juice, saying whole fruit is a better choice, with more fiber and fewer calories.)

However, cranberry juice drinks have a special attraction beyond taste for certain individuals, namely women who are prone to urinary tract infections. A number of studies back up what folklore long has suggested — that cranberry juice helps prevent or cure such infections. (Drinking lots of water helps, too).

More recent studies indicate that white cranberries work about as well as red ones against urinary tract infections, said Amy Howell, a Rutgers University researcher in plant chemistry.

The berries’ main weapon, according to Howell: condensed tannins, which prevent bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder, causing infection.

She said that when women drank an 8-ounce glass of white-cranberry juice each morning and evening in one Rutgers study, tests showed the bacteria-flushing effect lasted for 10 hours after the juice was consumed. The study was published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Howell’s research is funded partly by the cranberry industry, as well as government and other sources. She works at a Rutgers center that primarily studies cranberries and blueberries.

Whether white cranberries contain the beneficial antioxidants richly present in red cranberries’ pigment is not yet known, Howell said. Antioxidants may exist in the pigment precursors present in the white berries, she said, but there have been no studies to test that possibility.

Will we ever see fresh white cranberries in stores? There are no plans for that so far, said Newcomb, “but it’s something we’ll always be looking at.”