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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fruits: How to select, store and serve these healthy foods

Nature offers many sweet choices for eating well: juicy red cherries, plump purple plums, and orange, luscious tangerines, just to name a few. In fact, all fruits fit into a colorful and healthy diet. Whether you eat them as snacks, main meals or trimmings, fruits offer a variety of nutrients, very little fat and relatively few calories. Find out why you need to eat fruits and the best way to select, store and serve them.

Why eat fruits?

Fruits are a great-tasting way to get vitamins, minerals and fiber and to satisfy your sweet tooth without loading up on calories. And except for a few, such as avocado, coconut and olives, fruits are virtually fat-free.

Fruits contain phytochemicals — a group of compounds that may reduce your risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Many are also good sources of antioxidants — substances that slow down oxidation, a natural process that leads to cell and tissue damage.

Eating a variety of fruits is vital because different fruits provide different nutrients. For example, oranges and kiwi fruit are good sources of vitamin C. Bananas are a good source of potassium, and apricots are high in vitamin A. So if you rarely venture beyond a few of your favorites, you're missing out on the nutrients and benefits of other fruits.

Tips for selecting, storing and serving fruit

Here are suggestions to help you select the highest quality fruits when you're shopping, ways to store them once you get home, and tips for preparing and serving fruits to enhance their flavor and retain their nutrients.


* Choose in-season fruits. The closer you are to the growing season, the fresher your produce and the better it tastes.
* Select fruits that feel heavy for their size. Heaviness is a good sign of juiciness.
* Smell fruits for characteristic aromas. Fruits should generally have their characteristic ripe scent but not smell overly ripe. For example, cantaloupe (muskmelon) shouldn't smell too musty, especially if you don't plan to eat it right away.
* Test texture. A kiwi that feels mushy to the touch is too ripe. However, an avocado with a somewhat spongy texture is ideal. Be sensitive to the correct texture for the specific fruit you're interested in.
* Buy dried fruits processed without added sugar. Dried fruits are a concentrated source of dietary fiber, but they're also higher in calories than are fresh fruits. Use dried fruits sparingly and try to buy versions that don't contain added sugar.
* Read labels on packaged fruits. Look for frozen fruits processed without added sugar. Choose fruit canned in water or fruit juice. Avoid fruits preserved in sugar-sweetened syrup, which is a source of calories without nutrients.


* Keep fruits at room temperature to ripen them. Some fruits — such as bananas, pears, nectarines and kiwi — may be picked and sold at grocery stores before they're ripe. To ripen, leave fruit at room temperature. Ripe fruits are usually slightly soft, have their characteristic smell and have a uniform color.
* Store ripe fruits in your refrigerator. The cool temperature slows the ripening process, giving you longer storage times. The length of time you can store fruit depends on many factors, including how ripe the fruit is at the time of purchase and the type of fruit. Oranges, apricots and cherries keep well from one to two weeks in your refrigerator. Others, such as strawberries, raspberries, grapes or peaches, may ripen and spoil in less time — even a couple days.
* Throw away produce you've kept too long. Discard fruit that is moldy or slimy, smells bad, or is past the "best if used by" date. Besides being unappetizing, spoiled or moldy fruit may contain toxins that could make you sick.
* Freeze fruits for long-term storage. You can freeze many types of fruit for up to one year. Grapes, cherries, berries and melon freeze particularly well. For best results, cut larger fruit into smaller chunks and remove the skin of peaches, apples and nectarines before freezing. Place in a single layer on a cookie sheet and put in the freezer. Once frozen, take the fruit off the cookie sheet and put into freezer bags for long-term storage.


* Prepare fresh fruit within about an hour of serving to maximize flavor, texture and nutrients. Some salads benefit from a little chilling time — about 30 to 60 minutes — for the various flavors to marry.
* Wash all fruits thoroughly under cold running water before cutting or eating whole. This includes those fruits with hard shells or skins, such as melons. That's because the knife you use to cut the melon could transfer germs from the surface into the flesh. Wash your hands before and after handling fresh fruits.
* Leave on edible peels whenever possible. The peels of apples, pears and most fruits with pits add interesting color and texture to recipes and contain added nutrients and fiber.
* Remove zest from citrus peels before discarding and save it for other recipes. The zest is the thin, brightly colored, outermost layer of citrus fruit, such as limes or oranges. Grated or shredded, it adds a bright spark of flavor and color enhancement to both sweet and savory dishes.

Add more fruit to your diet

Keep bowls of colorful, luscious fruits on hand so that they're easy to grab whenever hunger pangs strike. Fresh fruit is generally best because it contains the most nutrients, but frozen fruit, fruits canned in their own juice or water, and dried fruit are good alternatives.

Here are easy ways to incorporate more fruit into your diet:

* Add fresh or dried fruit to breakfast cereals.
* Add dried fruit to batters and doughs for quick breads, muffins and cookies.
* Replace the oil in baked goods with thick fruit purees, such as applesauce, mashed bananas or prunes.
* Saute with fruit juice instead of oil.
* Add grated raw apple to lean ground beef or turkey when making meatloaf or meatballs.
* Make fruit sauces and toppings for desserts or pancakes.
* Freeze fresh grapes and enjoy them instead of sugary iced treats.
* Place a package of dried fruit in your car, purse, briefcase, backpack or lunchbox for a between-meal snack.
* Carry two pieces of fruit with you to work every day for lunch and a snack.
* Enjoy fruit as a snack by keeping a variety ready to eat in the refrigerator or in a display bowl at all times.
* Make it a goal to have fruit at each meal.

A healthy diet doesn't have to be monotonous. Be adventurous. Try some new and unfamiliar fruits, such as kumquats, papayas, breadfruits or persimmons. You may be surprised to find that you like them, and they'll add interest and more health benefits to your diet.
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