Encouraging people to eat more dried fruit — without added sugar — could be an effective way to boost their intake of vital nutrients, researchers have concluded.
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Low consumption of fruit in the United States and other countries is a major contributor to diet-related disease and disability, according to a recent analysis.
Fruit is a good source of nutrients, such as fiber and potassium, that many people lack in their diet. It also contains bioactive nutrients that provide extra health benefits, including polyphenols and carotenoids.
Research suggests that eating fruit is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
Several factors might contribute to people’s low intake of fresh fruit, including limited availability, high cost, and perishability.
Recommending that people eat more dried fruit could be one solution.
Dried fruit offers several advantages over fresh fruit in terms of cost, availability, and ease of storage and transport. It could also replace more unhealthful snack food that is high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat.
At the same time, however, there are concerns about overconsumption leading to excess calorie intake because dried fruit is such an “energy dense” form of fruit.
Previous observational studies have found that eating dried fruit is associated with health benefits. However, the evidence is inconclusive because people who eat more dried fruit may tend to have a more healthful diet and lifestyle overall.
The new study by researchers at Pennsylvania (Penn) State University in University Park aimed to get around this difficulty by comparing days when particular participants reported eating dried fruit with days when they ate none.
They found that people tended to consume more key nutrients on the days they ate dried fruit, including dietary fiber and potassium. However, they also consumed more calories.
“Dried fruit can be a great choice for a nutritious snack, but consumers might want to be sure they’re choosing unsweetened versions without added sugar,” says Valerie Sullivan of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD, who was a grad student at Penn State when she led the study.
“Portion sizes can also be tricky because a serving of dried fruit is smaller than a serving of fresh since the water has been taken out. But the positive is that dried fruit can help people potentially consume more fruit because it’s portable, it’s shelf-stable, and can even be cheaper.”
For their analysis, the scientists drew on survey responses from 25,590 individuals who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2007–2016.
The respondents provided information about the food they had consumed in the past 24 hours (called “dietary recalls”).
Dried fruit accounted for only 3.7% of all the fruit consumed. However, a total of 1,233 participants reported consuming dried fruit on one out of two dietary recalls, allowing the scientists to compare their intake on these days.
Data were also available on the participants’ health, including their body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and seated resting blood pressure.
Even after adjusting for demographic and lifestyle factors, the participants who ate significant amounts of dried fruit tended to have better diets, a lower BMI, a smaller waist circumference, and lower systolic blood pressure compared with those who did not.
When the researchers compared the days when a participant ate dried fruit with those when they did not, they found that the average intake of total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, potassium, and polyunsaturated fat was greater on the days they ate dried fruit.
Taken together, the findings suggest that people who ate dried fruit expended more energy, compensating for the extra calories.
“In our study, people who consumed dried fruits had a higher calorie intake but a lower BMI and waist circumference, which suggests they were more physically active,” says co-author Penny Kris-Etherton, Evan Pugh University Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State.
“So, when incorporating dried fruits, pay attention to calories and be sure to substitute out calories from low nutrient foods for dried fruits to get the greatest benefit of eating dried fruits,” she adds.
The researchers write that eating dried fruit tended to increase total fruit consumption, rather than replacing other forms of fruit. “Thus, increasing dried fruit consumption might help Americans achieve greater fruit intakes.”
The authors acknowledge that their study did not prove that eating dried fruit improves health, only that there seems to be an association. People who are likely to eat dried fruit may have better health for other reasons, such as taking more exercise or leading less stressful lives.
In addition, they note that the survey relied on the participants’ recollection of what they had eaten over the past 24 hours and their ability to estimate quantities accurately.
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