After spending the winter months enjoying the flavors and nutrition of citrus fruit, spring and summer bring us a variety of colorful fruit options to flavor our meals and snacks. Each delicious fruit brings along its own unique mix of nutrients that can provide us with a wide range of health benefits. When strawberry season is here, we know that summer has arrived.
All fruits provide us with that sweet flavor and an abundance of nutrients. Some of their key contributions to health include fiber, potassium, vitamin C, folate, and numerous phytonutrients. Examples of phytonutrients would be the large category of flavonoids that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Research tells us that these nutrient contributions can help to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some cancers. They also assist with eye health, intestinal health, and brain health.
Because of their fiber content, fruit can help us to feel full on fewer calories. Some weight loss research successfully used sweet-tasting fruit in place of less healthy sweet desserts as a way for participants to reduce calories and not feel sweet-deprived.
Fresh fruit can be a quick, easy snack. Its versatility means it can be part of a number of recipes. Fruit can be added to salads, yogurt, hot or cold cereals, overnight oats, cooked grains, sandwiches/wraps, quick breads, salsas, relishes, cold soups, or smoothies. Fruit or fruit sauces can be used to top pancakes, waffles, French toast, or main-dish entrees – poultry, pork, fish or other seafood dishes. How about freezing pureed fruit or smoothies to make homemade popsicles for a summer treat!
So let’s take a look at strawberries as a lead into summer. Did you know that a serving of eight strawberries has more vitamin C than one orange? But that’s not all. It also provides us with fiber, potassium, small amounts of magnesium, vitamin K, iron, and calcium, and a big dose of phytonutrients. That same serving of eight berries has only 50 calories and has a low glycemic index (good news for those with diabetes).
When it comes to the phytonutrients, strawberries specialize in anthocyanins (related to the red color) and ellagic acid. These can counter oxidative stress and their antioxidant properties help to protect body and brain tissues from damage. Studies have suggested that eating two servings of strawberries a week can delay cognitive aging. When it comes to the cardiovascular system, their antioxidants can help to keep blood vessel walls healthier.
The fiber in strawberries, similar to other fruit, has been shown to reduce the risk and assist in the treatment of cardiovascular issues, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It can also help to normalize bowel function. Because of the water and types of fiber they contain, strawberries would then be a good choice for those prone to constipation. Fiber also supports the more positive gut microbes and related benefits to the immune system.
Strawberries picked at their peak ripeness have maximal flavor. Ideally this means growing them yourself or taking advantage of farms where you can pick you own. Farmers markets, co-ops, and similar options are also great for really fresh berries and other produce. Many local farms grow the fruits and vegetables organically, plus buying local means an overall smaller carbon footprint.
Strawberries are convenient and quick to prepare for eating. They should be rinsed but only right before use. Besides eating them fresh, they can be purchased while in season and frozen to enjoy in the months when fresh local berries are not available. To freeze them, remove the stems/leaves, rinse, pat dry, and freeze on a cookie sheet. The frozen berries can then be put in a freezer bag and kept in the freezer for several months.
If the only way you have eaten strawberries is popping them fresh into your mouth, be adventurous and look for recipes that use strawberries. You may be surprised at the many possibilities. Ever tried a strawberry caprese salad (just swap the tomatoes for strawberries) or a strawberry bruchetta (made with ricotta cheese, mint and a splash of balsamic vinegar)? How about adding some strawberry salsa to your next fish taco?
Add more flavor to fresh strawberries with some chopped mint or thyme. Create a balsamic reduction to spoon over the top by simmering balsamic vinegar over low heat until concentrated. This is also delicious as a dressing for a green salad made with fresh berries. Toss in some cooked chicken and a cooked whole grain like quinoa or brown rice and you have an easy one-dish summertime meal.
With all this sweetness and large amount of nutrients, you would think that Americans would be consuming the recommended amount of fruit daily. Unfortunately, survey research tells us that on average, both fruits and vegetables are inadequately consumed. A good goal for adults is to eat three to four servings of fruit daily, or the equivalent of about 2 cups. Those strawberries are just waiting for you to add them to your grocery bag!
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH. She has also been the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and provides guidance in sports nutrition. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas).