By Margaret Badore for DietsInReview.com
When you look as a handful of raisins, you would probably never imagine that anything could be controversial about them. They’re natural, they contain no additives, they might even be organic. But are they as good for you as grapes?
The International Nut and Dried Fruit Council has put forward a paper titled “Valuable Tools to Meet Dietary Recommendations for Fruit Intake,” which argues that dried fruit is “nutritionally equivalent” to fresh, and should be treated as such in government dietary recommendations and guidelines around the world. It suggests that dried fruit is a way to close the “fruit gap,” a way to help more people meet the daily recommended intake of fruit.
On one hand, this paper is a lobbying tool, putting science and statistics at the hands of marketers to promote a product. On the other hand, it proposes a seemingly reasonable solution for over-fed yet malnourished populations. According to the 2010 Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, three-quarters of Americans do not eat enough fruit on a daily basis, including children ages nine to 18. According to data from the Japanese research group Nippon Data 80/90, this statistic looks no better in 20 other first-world nations. In fact, MyPlate materials already suggests that dried fruits be considered for a healthy snack.
The claim that dried fruits are “nutritionally equivalent” to fresh produce seems like a stretch. Dried fruit is a good source of fiber and other vitamins, which varies from fruit to fruit. Dried peaches and apricots are a good source of carotenoids and calcium, dried plums are high in vitamin K. However, the drying process can destroy other vitamins, such as vitamin C, which is not heat stable. “You can also lose some vitamin A and possibly B vitamins (like thiamin) and some minerals during the drying process,” Elisa Zied, MS, RD and author of Nutrition At Your Fingertips, told me.
“The main difference, beyond the fact that the water has been removed, is that all the nutrients are more concentrated,” explains Daniel D. Gallaher, PhD, a Professor at the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Gallaher spoke to me on behalf of the California Dried Fruit Commission about how he supports the recommendation. “They’re more energy dense,” he added. In other words, they have more calories, and those calories come from sugar. “Removing the water also concentrates the sugar,” said Dr. Gallaher. “So, the sweetness will generally be more intense as well, that may be a factor that might cause one to over-consume if one has a sweet tooth.”
Both Gallaher and the paper point out that a serving of dried fruit will necessarily be smaller than serving of fresh fruit, and that the two should not be compared by volume or weight. Of course, a cup of raisins will have more calories than a cup of grapes. A serving of dried fruit needs to be proportionally reduced by the amount of water that has been lost. This means that dried fruit may be less filling, and that portion control becomes more important. In fresh fruit, “the water does add some satiety factor,” said Dr. Gallaher. “Water when it’s in food, as opposed to a glass of water, does seem to influence the sensation of fullness. So, there is that potential for over-consumption of dried fruit compared to non-dried fruit.”
“Dieters should first and foremost turn to fresh fruit first since it’s high in water content, typically high in fiber, and can really fill you up without providing too many calories,” said Zied. “It’s perfectly fine to consume some dried fruit, but keep in mind it’s a very concentrated calorie source (the raisins have very little water content and more calories in a small portion–and you could have a relatively small portion of raisins or a relatively large portion of grapes for the same calorie load).” For people who want to lose weight, she suggests eating no more than one to two tablespoons on any one day. She recommends using them as a way to sweeten healthy foods like high fiber cereals and low-fat yogurt.
When it comes to an individual’s diet, eating a moderate amount of dried fruit can be a convenient, cheap and tasty way to get an extra serving of fruit into your day. There is certainly an overabundance of snacks that are less healthy. Dr. Gallaher argues that despite the possible problem of over-consumption, the benefits outweigh the difficulties. “I really think that we should consider dried fruits as a good alternative to fresh fruits,” he concluded.
It’s at the larger level that I find the argument that dried fruits should hold an equal position to fresh fruit to be problematic, as well as the fact that this proposal is being put forward by a group that stands to profit from that sort of national endorsement. Americans have not shown themselves to be good at eating in moderation. In a nation facing an obesity crisis and unprecedented levels of diabetes, pushing a food that’s high in calories from sugar into the same category as a filling, low-calorie foods would not be an ideal policy choice.