The juicy fruits of summer are long gone, so it's time to take a look at their delicious, nutritious dried counterparts.
As the weather gets colder, fewer options are available for getting your daily fruit fix. (Apples are great, but we crave variety.) Enter dried fruit, which is nature’s way of getting you through the winter. Gone are the days when it was relegated to the yearly fruitcake or eaten purely for the fiber boost. With choices like dried blueberries and cherries now on store shelves, you can enjoy and cook with your summer favorites year-round.
Dried fruits have benefits that extend far beyond the kitchen. They’re tiny, concentrated packages of nutrition, high in fiber, potassium, and other nutrients. A quarter-cup of dried figs, for example, has about 60 milligrams of calcium, nearly twice as much as the same amount of low-fat cottage cheese, which has 35 milligrams. And about five dried apricots give you 36 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin A.
Recent studies have shown that dried fruit is also high in antioxidants and may offer many of the same health benefits as fresh. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that fresh blueberries had the highest antioxidant levels of 41 fruits and vegetables the researchers tested. Dried blueberries, however, pack an even bigger punch, with four times the antioxidants of their fresh counterparts, according to Charles M. Mainland, PhD, a blueberry researcher and professor of horticulture at North Carolina State University.
Moreover, new research has found that dried plums (a.k.a. prunes) appear to slow the progression of heart disease. “Compounds called chlorogenic and neochlorogenic acids may be involved in this beneficial effect,” says Daniel Gallaher, PhD, a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Plus, studies from the University of Scranton and Rutgers University have found that figs contain numerous antioxidants and, surprisingly, heart-protective omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Despite all of these benefits, dietitians still recommend not going overboard on the amount of dried fruit you eat. Because it has less water than fresh fruit, it also has a higher proportion of sugar and calories. What’s more, sugar is added to some dried fruits to balance their tartness, and the drying process can deplete vitamin C content.
Another consideration: Fruits such as apples and apricots, which darken when exposed to the air, are often treated with sulfites to keep them from discoloring. Though these chemicals are harmless to most people, they can cause allergic reactions in a few, and in rare cases, even death. Look for untreated fruit at health-food stores and some supermarkets.
As a practical matter, dried fruit has a much longer shelf life than fresh. It will keep for 6 months to a year in an airtight container.
And it isn’t merely a component of upscale trail mix. You can put it to endless creative uses in the kitchen (try the ideas in our January 2005 issue). A sprinkling of dried blueberries transforms plain old chicken salad into luncheon fare suitable for company; and a handful of dried cherries delivers an extra shot of flavor to your holiday stuffing. We swear that you’ll never look at those shriveled skins the same way again.
— Domenica Marchetti is a frequent contributor to Health.
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