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Fruits Take the Cake

Don't ignore the holiday fruitcake if you want the most healthful nutrients

FRIDAY, Dec. 21, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Cranberries top the 10 Most Wanted list -- at least, when it comes to good-for-you fruits, says a group of Pennsylvania researchers.

"We analyzed the fruits for their phenol content, one form of antioxidant that has been shown to have extremely important protective effects in the body," says lead study author Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton where the research was conducted.

"In terms of gram weight and serving size, cranberries won hands down. They contained the highest level of phenol antioxidant content of any of the fruits we tested," Vinson says.

In order of potency, here is the researchers' Top 10 list: Cranberries, pears, red grapes, apples, cherries, strawberries, watermelon, blueberries, bananas and green grapes.

Although fresh fruits tested best, dried fruits -- like those found in the inevitable holiday fruitcake -- can be beneficial as well, says Vinson. They can still supply a hefty portion of antioxidants.

These are the nutrients that protect the body from free radicals, which are forms of oxygen that can damage cells, not only accelerating the aging process, but also initiating a variety of health problems like heart disease and even cancer, says Vinson.

For nutritionist Jyni Holland, the results are not surprising since fruits -- and cranberries, in particular -- have long been known to contain high levels of antioxidants.

What makes this research so important, she says, is that it is the first attempt at comparing and ranking fruits in relation to one another.

"If you look at the fruits that came in highest, they are the ones that are deepest in color. As the skins and the flesh take on a lighter shade, such as bananas and green grapes, you find less antioxidants," says Holland, a nutritionist and registered dietician at New York University Medical Center.

If you can't remember which fruits are the best for you, she says, just go for the brightest, deepest colors, and you can't go wrong.

To conduct the study, researchers chose at least two samples of each fruit in their freshest state, "choosing fruits from different parts of the country when possible, in order to get a fair representation," says Vinson.

Using ordinary tap water, they first washed and dried each fruit, then weighed, chopped and pureed the edible portions in a blender. The dry weight of each fruit sample was determined, then it was individually placed through a sieve and stored for later analysis.

That analysis relied on a variety of chemicals and solvents designed to tease out various nutrient factors, including vitamin C content and the antioxidant polyphenols. From that came the Top 10 list.

The study results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

In earlier studies, a similar ranking was done on vegetables. But when Vinson compared those findings to the new ones, fruit still took the cake: Cranberries, the winner in the fruit category, was five times more potent than an equal serving of broccoli, the winner in the vegetable category.

But Holland says you shouldn't choose fruits over vegetables, or eat just one kind of fruit.

"Vegetables contain other nutrients that fruits don't have, and they are equally powerful in fighting disease and protecting the body. Ideally you need both," she says.

Moreover, Holland says that eating just one fruit obsessively -- even one as power-packed as cranberries -- won't give you the protection you might think.

"Each fruit has a slightly different configuration of nutrients, and each one acts a little differently in the body. So if you eat only one, you are only going to get one kind of protection," she says.

Varying fruits and vegetables, she adds, offers you a compendium of protective factors, including phenols, various amounts and types of vitamins and minerals, and particularly fiber.

What To Do

If you're wondering whether you can only benefit from fresh fruits, the answer is no; there are gains from eating frozen, dried or even canned varieties, just not as much.

"General rule: The more you process a fruit, the more nutrients you lose, particularly when that process involves heat, as is the case with canning," Vinson says.

Fruit juices can also be good, Vinson adds, but stick to 100 percent pure juice, particularly when choosing a cranberry drink. Most cranberry juice cocktails, he says, are only 27 percent juice, so your protection is dramatically reduced.

To better gauge the healthful benefits of the fruits you do eat, the study offers up this guide to the total antioxidant phenols, in milligrams, per serving size for the Top 10 fruits: 373 mg per one-half cup of cranberries; 317 per one medium-size pear; 296 for one-half cup red grapes; 256 per one medium-size apple; 231 for one-half cup of cherries; 195 for eight medium strawberries; 183 for one large wedge of watermelon; 181 for one-half cup blueberries; 174 for one medium-size banana; 155 for one-half cup of green grapes.

For more information on other healthy benefits of fruits, visit About Produce.

To learn more about how to incorporate cranberries into your diet, visit the University of Maine's Fruit Pyramid Series.

For more information on the health benefits of antioxidants, visit The American Dietetic Association.

SOURCES: Interviews with Joe Vinson, Ph.D., lead study author, professor of chemistry, University of Scranton, Pennsylvania; Jyni Holland, R.D., nutritionist and registered dietician, New York University Medical Center, New York City; Nov. 19, 2001, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry
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