Right now there are so many kinds of fruit in season at the local farmers’ market. I know that we should limit fruit consumption and that some fruits offer more nutrition and higher antioxidants than others. I live alone and can’t afford to fill my small fridge with 20 different kinds of produce, so I need to make choices sometimes and want to buy greater amounts of highly nutritious food and lesser amounts of moderately nutritious food for variety.
Thanks to reader Patricia for the timely question. Of course, variety is healthy, but it’s true that some fruits will offer you more nutritional bang for your buck. A great resource for checking the antioxidant power of different fruits (and veggies, herbs, etc.) is the ORAC report (PDF), ORAC standing for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. It’s a database of antioxidant levels compiled by scientists at the National Institutes of Health, specifically the National Institute on Aging. The ORAC method isn’t the final say on antioxidant measurement, but it provides a useful measure overall and an impressively comprehensive list of foods.
For example, the highest ratings per 100 grams among fruits go mostly to berries: acai, chokeberries, elderberries, cranberries, wild blueberries, black currants, blackberries and raspberries. Prunes and plums rate within this group as well. Nutritionally, these are all great bets. Apples, figs, dates, strawberries, and cherries all do very respectably as well. Further down the list you find more of the citrus fruits, melons and tropical fruits.
But I’d suggest considering more than just ORAC values when choosing fruit. For me, the glycemic index and glycemic load fit into the picture as well. Obviously, I want to keep my carb intake low. In doing so, I look at where the two priorities intersect: nutrition and low GL. I should mention here that glycemic load offers can tell you more in this instance than glycemic index. The GI rating measures the effect of a food on blood sugar relative to pure glucose. The GL takes into account how much of the carbohydrate is in the food. A watermelon, for example, has a high GI but a relatively low GL because it’s mostly water. I’d suggest checking out this chart that includes GI and GL levels for fruits and other foods. For GI, high is considered 70-100, moderate 50-70, and low less than 50. For GL, 20+ is high, 11-19 is moderate and 10 or less is low. As you can see, dates have a high ORAC value, but they’re also sky high in terms of GI and GL (103; 42). Figs, perhaps surprisingly, offer a better choice at 61 and 16 respectively. Nonetheless, berries and cherries offer the best choices with not just high ORAC values but low glycemic measures (around 40 and 1-3 respectively). An interesting note: the glycemic measures of a fruit fluctuate based on country of origin and the particular variety (e.g. a golden delicious apple not surprisingly being higher than a braeburn).
Here are a few of my suggestions for fruits that have the best overlap between low GI/GL and high antioxidant activity.
I’d recommend berries and cherries, preferably wild, as the best option overall. You can buy them fresh or frozen year round or freeze your own during summer season. Weighing in at about 12-15 grams of carbs a serving, I don’t see any reason these can’t be a daily choice if you’re a fruit lover. Good second choices (decent in glycemic measures, a bit less on the ORAC scale) include apples and pears in fall and winter, and peaches and plums in summer. For more on fruit seasons, check out this link.
Other fruits, including bananas, figs, and citrus, I’d put in the occasional category. (However, I do use splashes of citrus in flavorings and marinades.) As far as prunes, dates, melons and most of the tropical fruits (higher in glycemic measures, lower in ORAC values), I generally avoid them, but they can be Sensible Vices in small quantities.
And, of course, whole fruits are better than the juice, and organic fruits tend to have higher antioxidant activity than conventional. The same can be said for wild varieties.
Thanks for your questions, and keep ‘em coming!