Is Dried Fruit Really All That Healthy for You?
You feel virtuous (and maybe a little smug) when you opt for a bag of dried fruit over the tempting array of candy bars and potato chips at the gas station. But is your snack of choice actually a smarter, more nutritious snack? Is dried fruit healthy?
Generally speaking, dried fruit is healthy — especially compared with most packaged, processed treats. But, not all dried fruit is created equal. Here’s what you need to know to make the healthiest dried fruit choices.
What Is Dried Fruit?
Dried fruit is fruit that’s been dried using various methods to remove the water, preserve the fruit, and concentrate its flavor.
Commercial practices include: sun drying, atmospheric drying (using a kiln or other apparatus to continually pass heated air over the fruit), and vacuum dehydration (using low air pressure to remove moisture).
Some fruit is first treated with a preservative (sulfur dioxide, typically) to lengthen shelf life and prevent oxidation.
“Sulfur protects these fruits from browning and the loss of vitamins A and C,” says Danielle Gaffen, MS, RDN. “Unfortunately, the sulfur also destroys vitamin B1 [thiamin] and may also cause headaches or allergic reactions in individuals with sulfite sensitivities.”
If you want to avoid certain food preservatives and added sugars, you can make your own healthy dried fruit snacks at home using a tabletop dehydrator, which circulates warm air around trays of sliced fruit, or an oven set at a low temperature.
The Benefits of Dried Fruit
Have you wondered: “Is dried fruit healthy, or should I just stick to fresh fruit?” Like fresh fruit, dried fruit offers a variety of nutritional benefits, says Gaffen.
Dried fruit is also convenient, as it’s lighter and more compact than fresh fruit, won’t bruise, and doesn’t require refrigeration. That’s one reason why it’s such a common road trip and hiking snack.
“Drying fruit removes a fruit’s water,” Gaffen says. “The bacteria that cause food to spoil need water to live. With less water in a fruit, fewer bacteria can grow.”
These facts aside, it’s much easier to overeat dried fruit. (Take a peek at what 100 calories of fresh fruit looks like for comparison.)
“Would you eat 10 fresh apricots?” Gaffen asks. “But how easy does it feel to eat 10 dried apricots? Less water in dried fruit means that dried fruit takes up less room in our stomachs. Since one factor that regulates our hunger signals is volume, it’s likely we’ll eat more dried fruit than fresh fruit to feel as full.”
Why Does Dried Fruit Have More Sugar?
While dried fruit is healthy, it does have a higher sugar content than fresh fruit. This is for a couple of reasons, says Melissa Macher, RD, LD.
“Dried fruit has lost its water and thus has become more concentrated,” she says. “And sometimes food companies will add sugar to their dried fruit products for taste and as a preservative.”
This is why it’s important to review nutrition labels, both for added sugar and recommended serving size. If you’re following Sugar Free 3, our three-week eating plan designed to help you kick sugar cravings, you’ll learn tips and techniques for curbing (or controlling) your sugar habit. On the program, no sugar added dried fruit is allowed in moderation.
What’s the Best Dried Fruit to Eat?
Just like there’s no absolute healthiest fruit, there’s no best dried fruit option. The healthiest approach is to eat a variety of dried fruits while paying attention to portion size and natural sugar content. Some dried fruits are higher in calories than others.
When choosing packaged dried fruit, it’s best to opt for varieties that don’t have added oils and aren’t sweetened with added sugar. (Sour or tart fruits, like cranberries and cherries, often contain added sugar to make them more palatable.) And if you have any sensitivity to sulfites, steer clear of brands that use sulfur dioxide as a preservative.