Tuesday, January 27, 2009

To Dry or Not to Dry

As we are in the heart of winter, I noticed I seem to be eating many more dried fruits as an alternative to buying out of season (and most likely shipped long distances) fruits. I started to wonder if the nutritional value was the same? Better? Worse? Here is a little of what I discovered.
Dried fruit is fruit that has been dried, either naturally or through use of a machine, such as a food dehydrator. Raisins, prunes and dates are examples of popular dried fruits. Other fruits that may be dried include apples, apricots, bananas, cranberries, figs, kiwi, mangoes, peaches, pears, persimmons, pineapples, blueberries, strawberries and tomatoes. Historically, drying fruit was a way to preserve the food and to enjoy out of season fruits throughout the year.

But is dried fruit good for you? When you dry fruits, you lose more than just water. You also lose nutrients. For example, when it comes to berries, much of their health benefits is derived from their phytonutrients. Flavonoids like peonidin, petunidin, malvidin, and many others found in berries are susceptible to damage from heat, light, oxygen, and time-since-harvest. While some drying processes are harsher than others, no drying process can leave the phytonutrient content of these berries significantly unchanged. The drying process also destroys most of the vitamin C found in fresh fruit. However, other research suggests that dried fruit provides good nutritional benefits. Dried fruits are high in fiber. They are also rich in vitamins (A, B1, B2, B3, B6, pantothenic acid) and dietary minerals such as, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, copper, manganese.

Since fruits lose water (and therefore volume) during the drying process, their calorie and sugar content becomes concentrated once they are dried. A handful of dried fruit contains many more calories than the same amount of fresh fruit. For example one cup of dried apricots contains 313 calories as opposed to the 74 calories in the same amount of fresh apricots. While fresh fruits are generally considered a moderate sugar food, dried fruits are considered a high sugar food, high in carbohydrates. It is usually recommended that you eat half the amount of dried fruit as fresh. (That means no more snacking on the entire bag of dried cranberries while I sit working at my desk).

It is also good to be aware that commercially dried fruits often have added ingredients. Commercially prepared dried fruit may contain added sulfur dioxide which can trigger asthma in sensitive individuals, though dried fruit without sulfur dioxide is also available, particularly in health stores. The sulfur is added to "fix" the color of the product. Organic dried fruit is produced without sulfur which results in dark fruit and the flavour is much more characteristic of the fresh fruit. Sweeteners are also typically added to dried fruit (Remember, dried fruit is typically found in the candy aisle). These are usually always added to dried cranberries (and often times other berries) since cranberries are very tart. It is suggested to look for dried cranberries sweetened with a natural sweetener such as apple juice concentrate rather than refined sugar or corn syrup. Dehydrating fruit at home is a simple way avoid these added ingredients. Home dehydrators tend to be less harsh than commercial ones.You may maintain more of the nutirents as a bonus to avoiding those “extra” ingredients.

So, fresh is almost always a better choice. But during the winter months when that isn’t an option, just remember a couple of key points. Portion control, portion control, portion control. A handful is much better than a bagful! Try diving that bag into smaller portions to decrease the temptation to eat more than you should. Also, buy organic or dehydrate at home to avoid the “bonus” ingredients.