In speaking to countless patients over the years, it is apparent that people generally want to eat a healthy diet. In most cases, however, this is easier said than done. It takes a lot of planning to eat right each day, and many people feel overwhelmed by the high volume of information about nutrition coming from magazines, newspapers, television and medical professionals. One of the most common concerns I hear from patients is the difficulty of getting enough servings of fresh produce. To make it easier, people often turn to dried fruit out of convenience. My wife often buys these types of snacks every time we are in the airport. I would like to explore these kinds of choices and let you know whether or not it is a truly healthy option.
The Importance of Fruit
Everyone needs fruit and vegetables to stay healthy. These natural wonders are chock full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, the substances that protect our cells from free radical damage. Many fruits commonly sold both fresh and dried, such as blueberries, cherries, cranberries and figs, are particularly rich in nutrients that protect our health.
Depending on age, weight and activity level, most adults must consume 5 to 9 fruit and vegetable servings each day (find your specific daily recommended servings at www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov). The problem is that choosing fresh produce isn’t always easy. You may not have access to a refrigerator at work all day, and delicate fruits like pears and raspberries don’t travel very well. Furthermore, purchasing fresh fruit at fast food restaurants, delis, or convenience shops is either impossible or expensive, and the selection is very limited. Despite these challenges, eating your daily produce servings is a natural, highly effective way to keep your body at its best.
Dried Fruit Pros and Cons
For many people, dried fruit has become the go-to solution to the produce dilemma. The question, however, remains: Is dried fruit truly healthy? The answer is not as clear as you might think. To make dried fruit, manufacturers remove the water. It is the water in fresh fruit that contributes to spoilage and bacteria growth, so dehydrating the fruit makes it shelf stable for six months to a year. If dried fruit is simply fresh fruit with the water extracted, how could it be bad for you?
In order to dehydrate fruit like plums, apricots, figs, grapes and all the rest, the fruit must be exposed to dry heat from either the sun or commercial grade ovens. This heat has a negative effect on fruit’s nutrient content. In particular, vitamin C, potassium and calcium are three important substances that drastically deteriorate during the drying process.
For example, a dried apricot loses over half of its potassium content, and fruits high in vitamin C lose nearly all nutritional value due to drying. On the upside, however, dried fruit does not lose its fiber and iron content.
Another issue to consider with dried fruit is chemical content. For certain fruits, such as, golden raisins and apricots, sulphur dioxide is used to fix the color during the drying process. This chemical may aggravate or provoke asthma attacks in some individuals. To avoid unwanted additives, you can purchase natural and organic dried fruit at health food stores.
When you eat dried fruit, you must also take calories into account. Remember, the water has been removed, considerably reducing the volume of the fruit. Therefore, you will need to eat a smaller portion of dried fruit compared with fresh fruit in order to consume the same amount of calories.
For example, one cup of fresh grapes has about 60 calories, while one cup of raisins has 495 calories—quite a difference!
In addition, dried fruit tends to be much sweeter due to concentrated flavor, so it’s easy to eat a lot without thinking about it. To keep calories in check, divide fresh fruit into individual portions and put them in zip top bags. Keep single servings in your car, purse or desk drawer for snacking.
Despite some stumbling blocks, the National Cancer Institute says that a quarter cup of dried fruit counts as a serving of produce. I recommend that my patients who enjoy dried fruit eat it as just one of their daily produce servings, and that they carefully monitor portion size. With healthy eating, variety is the key. If you purchase natural, chemical-free dried fruit and eat it along with a wide array of fruits and vegetables, it can be a convenient solution to your eat-right goals.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.