Is Dried Fruit Healthy or a Sugar Bomb?

Health experts have all sorts of opinions on dried fruit. Some see it as a healthy snack. Others say it is basically like eating candy. So which is it?

I’m of the school that dried fruit can indeed make a healthy snack—with a few caveats. Before I get into those, let me first tell you about nutritional benefits of dried fruit and the healthiest dried fruit options.

Benefits of Dried Fruit: Nutrition and Shelf Life

Dried fruit is made through the process of dehydration—taking fresh fruit and removing the water. Dried fruit lasts a lot longer than fresh fruit and makes for a handy and healthy snack when you’re hiking, camping, or on a long road trip or flight.

Fresh fruit generally contains more vitamins and minerals than dried, as the drying process can destroy water-soluble vitamins like the B’s and C. Dried fruit, however, takes the prize for fiber, often comprising more fiber than the same serving size of its fresh counterpart.

But where dried fruit really shines, nutritionally speaking, is in its antioxidant content. Dehydration appears to make the antioxidants in certain dried fruits even more concentrated and potent.

Antioxidants are compounds that help prevent and repair damage from oxidation—a process that occurs as a result of normal cell function. During oxidation, a small number of cells turn into free radicals. These volatile molecules start harming other cells, which leads to a chain reaction of damage that can eventually result in diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Antioxidants and Free Radicals

While antioxidants can’t stop oxidation from happening, they can lessen its destructive effects. According to one study, “Since numerous health beneficial phytochemicals [plant compounds] in fruits are conserved after processing, regular intake of dried fruits can help prevent cancer.”

Another study examined the effect of antioxidants in prunes on oxidative damage to endothelial cells (which can trigger cardiovascular disease). The researchers concluded that these compounds significantly counteracted the oxidative process, “clearly indicating that these polymers protect human endothelial cells…”

The Healthiest Dried Fruits

While you’re probably most familiar with dried fruits like dates, figs, apricots, raisins, and prunes, it’s the less common fruits that are really starting to be recognized as nutritional powerhouses. Some of the most significant are goji berries, Bing cherries, mulberries, goldenberries, wild blueberries, pomegranate seeds, and Indian gooseberries—which happen to boast the highest antioxidant capacity of any dried fruit on the planet. Unfortunately, dried Indian gooseberries aren’t too easy to find in the states, so I’ll discuss the fruits that are more readily available at your local health food store.

Pomegranate

The seeds of pomegranates, called arils, contain high levels of vitamin C and K, as well as fiber, folate, potassium, and even some protein. But pomegranate’s major health boons stem from its antioxidant content. Compounds such as punicalagins and punicic acid are known to fight against cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases.

While most people drink pomegranate juice or eat the freshly extracted seeds, dried pomegranate seeds are gaining popularity. They are great in trail mixes, as salad toppers, or simply by the handful.

Goji berries

Goji berries have been used for 6,000 years in traditional and Chinese medicine, but only recently have they been recognized as a modern-day “super food.” Goji berry benefits are numerous. They have one of the highest antioxidant ratings of all fruits and vegetables and deliver antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. One study found that drinking goji berry juice for 14 days improved digestion and brain activity, while another study showed that goji berries bolster immunity and protect against the flu.

Cherries

There are several types of cherries, all with unique properties.

Bing cherries are rich in antioxidants quercetin and anthocyanins. Anthocyanins, which give the cherries their dark red color, can reduce inflammation and help prevent inflammatory diseases like cancer. One study even found that this family of antioxidant compounds provide anti-inflammatory activity similar to over-the-counter ibuprofen and naproxen sodium!

Rainier cherries—a cross between the Bing and Van varieties—are deliciously sweet and provide many of the same health benefits as Bing cherries.

And tart cherries boast even stronger antioxidant capacity than Bing! Research indicates that tart cherries prevent bone loss and osteoporosis, reduce stroke risk and complications, alleviate muscle pain, and lower arthritis pain and symptoms—particularly in gout. In one study of 633 patients with gout, eating at least 10 cherries a day over a 2-day period resulted in 35% lower risk of gout attacks compared to eating none.

Wild blueberries

You’re probably very familiar with highbush blueberries, which are the delicious little fruits found in your grocery store produce section. But lowbush blueberries—also called bilberries or wild blueberries—are typically smaller and even better sources of certain antioxidants like flavonoid anthocyanins (phytonutrients that make blueberries blue).

The high anthocyanin content of blueberries makes them fantastic brain food. Besides offering protection against inflammatory free radicals, anthocyanins can actually enhance your brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other.

I also love dried mulberries, which have less sugar than other popular fruits and are a great source of resveratrol, and goldenberries, a good vegetarian source of protein and pectin, a soluble fiber.

Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and other berries

I’m a huge fan of berries, generally, and try to make them a part of my daily diet. The powerful flavonoid antioxidants in blueberries and cherries are also found in strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries. Since these berries are most available freshly picked, I’m not giving them the mention they deserve for being high vibrational foods in this dried fruit article – but they are certainly among the healthiest fruits you can eat. Just go organic as much as possible with berries. Conventionally produced strawberries are consistently cited by the Environmental Working Group as having more toxic, vibration-lowering pesticide residues than other fruits.

The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 Fruits and Vegetables: Know When to Choose Organic

But…What About the Sugar?

Now let’s discuss the elephant in the room—the high calorie and sugar content of dried fruit.

The removal of water through dehydration not only concentrates the sugar, it makes the fruit much more calorie dense.

All fruit naturally has sugar, and the dried and fresh varieties contain almost the same amount of calories and sugar per serving. However, a serving of fresh fruit is one cup, and a serving of dried fruit is ¼ cup.

And therein lies the main problem with dried fruit. A ¼ cup is not a lot and overeating is easy, which can lead to weight gain and blood sugar spikes. When enjoying dried fruit, make sure you stick to ¼-cup serving, or make sure you eat dried fruits with nuts, which will help reduce insulin response by balancing the dried fruit sugar content with protein and healthy fat. This is especially important if you have blood sugar issues (like diabetes) or if you’re trying to lose weight.

To make matters worse (or sweeter…), many dried fruits, particularly tart varieties like cranberries, contain added sugar. Sulfites are also often used to help preserve the fruit and keep it from turning brown. Neither is necessary. When buying dried fruit, look at the ingredient list. The only thing that should be listed is the name of the fruit. That’s it!

Dried Fruit Take-Home Message

Dried fruit has several good and some bad characteristics. But when push comes to shove, I would always recommend snacking on a handful of dried fruit over a candy bar, potato chips, crackers, pastries, ice cream, or other processed junk foods.

If given the choice, opt for dried goji berries, pomegranate seeds, and the other berries that I mentioned. To prevent overindulging, measure out a ¼ cup and place the fruit in a separate bowl. Don’t eat directly out of the package—it’s a surefire way to overindulge! Try to limit your consumption of dried papaya, mangoes, and other fruits that are larger in size and much higher in sugar.

And finally, to help reduce the blood sugar spikes that tend to occur from eating sweet foods, enjoy your dried fruit with some raw nuts or seeds, or some other healthy fat or protein. I personally like to make my own trail mix with goji berries, dried cherries, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, and a sprinkle of Himalayan or sea salt. Delicious!

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