Food Group Superfoods: Fruit (Part 3)

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Over the last couple of weeks (in "Food Group Superfoods [Part 1]" and "Food Group Superfoods [Part 2]"), we’ve explored foods from the "starch" group, including grains, beans, and starchy vegetables. This week, we’ll begin our "fruit" journey. Suffice it to say that I won’t be getting into some of the more exotic fruits that have been labeled "super fruits" by the media; these include açaí, mangosteen, and goji berries. While they may be the current fruit darlings, there are plenty of other "old standbys" that are just as nutritious (plus, I already wrote about the super fruits in September 2007!).

Most fruits have lots to offer in terms of nutrition, so in some ways, all fruits could be considered “superfoods.” However, as with most anything, there are a few that stand out from the rest.

What they offer: Blueberries are one of my favorite fruits. I can’t seem to stop eating them! Blueberries are native to North America and were a staple of the early Americans’ diets. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, there are more than 450 varieties, but in general, the two major types in this country are the wild blueberries, or lowbush, and the cultivated blueberries, or highbush.

In terms of nutrients, blueberries are rich in vitamin C, manganese, and fiber. But where they really shine is in their antioxidant content. They contain phenolic acid, anthocyanins (which makes them blue), and ellagic acid. These phytonutrients provide many health benefits, including protection from heart disease (maybe even more so than grapes) and a decreased risk for macular degeneration.

More good news: Animal studies indicate that eating blueberries may slow the effects of aging, improving balance, coordination, and memory, and reducing the chances of dementia and Alzheimer disease. Blueberries are rich in pectin, a type of soluble fiber that can help lower cholesterol levels. But there’s more: The antioxidants in blueberries are thought to reduce the risk of cancer. And if you tend to get urinary tract infections, add some blueberries to your diet; certain substances in these berries can prevent bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall.

Nutrition info: One cup of blueberries contains about 80 calories, 21 grams of carbohydrate, 0.4 grams of fat, and 3.5 grams of fiber. Their glycemic index is around 50, so they’re on the lower end of the GI spectrum.

What to look for/how to use: Pick or buy blueberries that are firm, deep blue, and have a whitish cast to them. Make sure the berries aren’t “mushy,” soft, or dull in color. Refrigerate them, but don’t wash them until you’re ready to use them. If you pick more than you can eat at one time, freeze them in plastic bags. Obviously, blueberries are great in fruit salads and cereal, but try them in a garden salad, stirred into yogurt, and mixed into pancake batter. Freeze some blueberries into ice cubes and add them to beverages.

Plums What they offer: I always think of plums as a summer fruit, along with blueberries, but just like most produce these days, you can get them pretty much year round. Plums are related to peaches, nectarines, apricots, and almonds. In the U.S., there are about 100 varieties of plums, and they come in different colors, ranging from dark blue/purple to red to green to yellow. Dried plums are, as you might guess, prunes.

As far as nutrients go, plums are a great source of fiber, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, and iron. They, too, contain antioxidants, mostly in the form of substances called phenols. Because of their fiber content, plums can help promote a healthy cholesterol level and a healthy digestive tract (they also contain sorbitol, which helps laxation). Plums may help prevent colon cancer and macular degeneration, too. The more plums are allowed to ripen, the higher their antioxidant content. And, good news for you prune lovers: Prunes have a higher antioxidant content than plums.

Nutrition info: One medium (3.5-ounce) plum has 45 calories, 11 grams of carbohydrate, 1.4 grams of fiber, pretty much no fat, and a low glycemic index of 39. One prune, by the way, contains 20 calories, 5 grams of carbohydrate, 0.6 grams fiber, and 0 grams fat.

What to look for/how to use: Choose plums that are slightly soft, but still firm with a whitish bloom. You can keep them in the refrigerator, but they’re best eaten at room temperature. As with blueberries, plums are best eaten “as is,” but they can be sliced up and added to cereal or fruit salad. Prunes can be stewed or chopped up and added to cereal or to a trail mix. (Go easy with prune juice: 4 ounces has about 90 calories and 22 grams of carb.)

More superfood fruits next week!

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