Trending: Fruits and Vegetables

September 23, 2014

Food, nutrition and health experts recommend that people should increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, especially to replace salty, fatty nutritionally-empty snacks. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides the rationale for this advice based on current research: Healthy diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. Fruits and vegetables also provide essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, and other substances that are important for good health; and most fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat and calories and are filling.

 It is certainly easier to eat more fruit and vegetables in the summer and fall when fresh produce is abundant. It is definitely harder to do this in the winter months, especially with fruit, when produce is less available and the price may be high. (Exception: The banana which seems to be one of the constants all year round at an affordable price!)

With the advent of freezing, you can still get vegetables year round, that, while not as tasty as their fresh form, are still pretty good substitutes. But fruit does not freeze as well, changing a great deal in texture. You can try to eat what is in season, which may not be your favorite fruits, and you can find jarred or canned fruits. Look for those that are preserved with a light or fruit juice syrup, rather than a heavy, sugary syrup. But watch out for the marketing that promotes “made with fruit” as fruit substitute. 

Food manufacturers are always ready to take trending nutrition recommendations straight to the grocery shelves. Hence the advent of fruit products in snack, packaged, dried and drinkable forms. Parents may think they are giving their child a healthy snack, because the package label says “made with real fruit.” However, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has no specific definition as to how much fruit a product must contain to claim “made with real fruit.” Some fruit snacks may have nutritional value in that they may have added vitamins and some “pieces” of fruit, but they really can’t count as a fruit. And most likely, as with “drinkable” fruit, they are probably high in sugar. You cannot rely on the marketing of the product as their claims scream to you from the shelves. You need to use the nutrition label to compare the sugar content and other nutritional values. Remember to check the portion size. 

What about dried fruits? Are they a sound nutritional choice? They have become increasingly visible in the marketplace, appearing in cereals, snack packages and trail mixes. They are very portable because they don’t require delicate handling or refrigeration. They can be added to salads, yogurts, oatmeal, stuffing, stews and baked goods. As with other fruit snacks, you need to use the nutrition label and portion size to evaluate the product. Portion size may be a very important factor, as the nutrition information on small bags of trail mix may actually be based on a much smaller portion than you think.  Some of those bags are actually considered by the manufacturer to be 2-3 servings!  

Dried fruits do provide vitamins, minerals and fiber, but they are usually more calorie-dense, and higher in sugar and sodium (salt.) For example, a cup of fresh apricots has about 74 calories, 14 grams of sugar, 3 grams of fiber and 2 mg of sodium, while a cup of dried apricots has about 313 calories, 69 grams of sugar, 9.5 grams of fiber and 13 mg of sodium. A cup of seedless grapes has about 62 calories, 15 grams of sugar and less than a gram of fiber, while a cup of raisins has 434 calories, but significantly more sugar and fiber.

 Trending: Eat more fruits and vegetables! This is best accomplished by eating fresh produce that is available during each season. However, if you can’t do this, there are alternatives. You need to be consumer smart and ignore the manufacturer’s claims. Use the tool available on almost every product, the nutrition label, to evaluate food, keeping the serving size in mind. One last caution: Don’t assume a product labeled “organic” is going to be a “healthier” choice when it comes to calories, sugars and sodium. Organic means that the ingredients were grown without pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones. These are important qualities but organic does not mean it is low in fat, sugar or sodium.

 District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can call Quinnipiack Valley Health District, 203 248-4528 or contact us on line, dculligan@qvhd.org for more information on this topic. Web surfers may wish to view the USDA’s National Nutrient Data Base.