Everyone knows that eating fruit is an important part of a balanced diet. Current research shows it does more than add fiber and keep you regular.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says consuming a variety of fresh fruit is associated with having fewer chronic diseases. In its 2010 report, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the agency urges increased daily consumption of fresh fruit—at least two cups.

"Consumption of two and one-half cups of fruit (and vegetables) each day is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease including heart attack and stroke," says the USDA reporting that studies show, "Some vegetables and fruit may also be protective against certain types of cancer."

Experts including registered dietitian Courtney Gravenese, MS, RD endorse these recommendations but point out that not all fruit is created equally. "Fruits like berries (especially raspberries) and melon are good sources of fiber and offer more nutritional bang for the buck than bananas and grapes, for fewer calories," she says. "Apples are another great option for fiber and vitamin C."

Fiber is lacking in almost everyone's diet, according to the dietitian who recommends dried fruit as a fiber-adding option with one caveat. "The heat used in the drying process changes the nutritional composition," Gravenese explains. "Heat-sensitive nutrients, like vitamin C typically decrease but drying fruit also concentrates fiber, iron, and other minerals—and calories."

A 1/4- to 1/3-cup of dried fruit counts as a cup of fresh, but the nutrition-expert and mom of two young children counsels her clients to watch their portions since the dried variety is often significantly more caloric.

A Few Examples

There are less than 100 calories in a cup of grapes. "However, one cup of raisins—a popular dried fruit and a terrific source of iron—has 500 calories," says Gravenese.

A cup of fresh apricots have 74 calories and 3.1 grams of fiber; the same amount of dried apricots has a whopping 212 calories but there is more fiber—6.5 grams. "The vitamin C content practically evaporates going from 15.5 milligrams to a virtually non-existent 0.8 milligrams."

Still, dried fruit is definitely better than no fruit at all, says Gavenes who is a big fan of the portability factor. "If you're traveling or going on a long hike, dried fruit is tough to beat for snacking." Frozen fruit is another great option but isn't always practical. "Bringing frozen fruit on an airplane doesn't really work of course, but from a nutritional standpoint, frozen fruit is preferable to out-of-season fresh."

The Juicy Truth About Juice

With rare exception, most juice isn't any healthier than soda. A 12-ounce serving of cranberry juice cocktail for instance contains 51 grams of sugar (that's more than 12 teaspoons of sugar folks!)

According to the USDA, 100 percent juice can be part of a healthy diet but fresh, canned, frozen, and dried fruit is preferred over juice. Even so, the agency found that Americans in the 19- to 30-year-old age group get more than half their fruit intake from juice.

If you can't live without juice, restrict your consumption and read labels carefully to be sure you are buying 100 percent juice. Otherwise, you're consuming the equivalent of a sugar-sweeten beverage with little or no nutritional value.

One Other Important Point About Juice

According to the USDA, just because the packaging claims the beverage provides 100 percent of daily-recommended allotment of particular nutrient (i.e. vitamin C) that doesn't mean it's 100 percent juice. The label needs to say 100 percent juice on the label.

Courtney Gravenese MS, RD, reviewed this article.



Interview with Courtney Gravenese MS, RD

United States Department of Agriculture