When those bruised bananas and squishy grapes look anything but appetizing, grabbing the dried version might seem like a great alternative. Not so fast. While dried fruit does offer several nutritional benefits, the added chemicals and sugar make some question it’s healthy claimsSulphur dioxide in foods and beverages: its use as a preservative and its effect on asthma. Freedman, BJ. British Journal of Diseases of the Chest. 1980 April; 74(2): 128-134Occurrence of acrylamide in selected foods and mitigation options. Amerin, TM, Andres, L, Escher, F, et al. Institute of Food Science and Nutrition. Zurich, Switzerland. Food Additives and Contaminants. 2007 Sep; 24: 13-25..
From Farm to Factory — The Need-to-Know
Don’t believe everything Sun-Maid’s California girl says. It takes much more than sunshine to create dried fruits— especially when they’re mass produced. To preserve the fruit and prevent discoloration, some companies add in sulfur dioxideSulphur dioxide in foods and beverages: its use as a preservative and its effect on asthma. Freedman, BJ. British Journal of Diseases of the Chest. 1980 April; 74(2): 128-134..Often released into the air from coal burning power plants, this chemical can damage both the environment and the body. When consumed, sulfur dioxide can cause stomach pains, skin rashes, and even asthma attacksSulphur dioxide in foods and beverages: its use as a preservative and its effect on asthma. Freedman, BJ. British Journal of Diseases of the Chest. 1980 April; 74(2): 128-134.. And this isn’t the only chemical found in dried fruit. Studies have also found traces of acrymalide, a nerve damaging chemical, in some dried fruitsOccurrence of acrylamide in selected foods and mitigation options. Amerin, TM, Andres, L, Escher, F, et al. Institute of Food Science and Nutrition. Zurich, Switzerland. Food Additives and Contaminants. 2007 Sep; 24: 13-25..
But added chemicals may not be the worst part of consuming dried fruit. To make a tastier treat, companies often add sugar— especially with fruits like cranberries, which are typically less sweet naturally. One of those nifty little boxes of raisins, for example, contains up to 25 grams of sugar— almost the entire daily recommended amount for adults. The consequence? Consuming an excessive amount of sugar may contribute to conditions like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseaseConsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among adults with type 2 diabetes. Bleich, SN, Wang, YC. Department of Health Policy and Management. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD. Diabetes Care. 2011 Mar; 34(3): 551-5.Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Johnson, RK, Appel, LJ, Brands, M, et al. Circulation. 2009 Sep; 120 (11): 1011-20.. To avoid the excess, look out for “no sugar added” varieties, or ones sweetened with alternatives like all-natural fruit juice.
While dried fruits shrink in size, they seem to expand in calories. About ¼ cup of raisins can contain four times the calories in a ¼ cup of real grapes. For some, dried fruit is considered an energy dense food, meaning that a small amount packs in a high amount of caloriesEnergy density, portion size, and eating occasions: contributions to increased energy intake in the United States, 1977-2006. Duffey, KJ, Popkin, BM. Department of Nutrition, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. PLOS Medicine. 2011 June; 8(6).Energy-dense, low-fiber, high-fat dietary pattern is associated with increased fatness in childhood. Johnson, L, Mander, AP, Jones, LR, et al. Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research, Cambridge, United Kingdom. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2008 April: 87(4): 846-854..
But don’t count dried fruit out of this fruit fight just yet. Despite the added sugar, snacking on some raisins doesn’t spike blood sugar as much as snacks like chips or candy, making it a healthier choice at the vending machineDried fruits: excellent in vitro and in vivo antioxidants. Vinson, JA, Zubik, L, Bose, P, et al. Chemistry Department, University of Scranton, Scranton, PA. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2005 Feb; 24(1): 44-50.. Dried fruit also contains a large amount of antioxidants, which can be essential to fighting off harmful free radicalsDried fruits: excellent in vitro and in vivo antioxidants. Vinson, JA, Zubik, L, Bose, P, et al. Chemistry Department, University of Scranton, Scranton, PA. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2005 Feb; 24(1): 44-50.. And although dried fruits contain more calories per serving than the fresh version, they may also provide more fiber, vitamin A, C, and K, and calciumDried fruit consumption is associated with improved diet quality and reduced obesity in US adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2004. Keast, DR, O’Neil, CE, Jones, JM. Food and Nutrition Database Research, Inc, Okemis, MI. Nutritoin Research. 2011 June; 31(6): 460-7..
Snack Time Selection — Your Action Plan
In terms of risk and reward, dried fruit may be the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide of snacks. While the cons seem scary, don’t cross dried fruit off the grocery list completely. Studies suggest that when eaten in moderation, dried fruit can be helpful for those hoping to lose or maintain weightPolyphenol content and health benefits of raisins. Williamson, G, Carughi, A. School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom. Nutrition Research. 2010 Aug; 30(8): 511-9..
To avoid added sugars and chemicals from store bought varieties, try making dried fruit from scratch. Although it may take time, it will eliminate some of the scarier aspects of dried fruit (like, say, the added sugar and chemicals). Although fresh fruit seems to be the better choice, it doesn’t hurt to take a walk on the dried side once in a while.
Updated January 2012.
Photo by Nicole Fara Silver