How Healthy Is Dried Fruit, Really?
If you’ve ever wondered if “nature’s candy” isn’t much better for you than actual candy, we asked an RD to clear the air.
If you've heard it once, you've heard it at least a thousand times: Eat more fruits and vegetables. For some, this is a simple task (hint: It's called Rainbow Paella, Crispy Mushroom Reuben Sandwiches, and a near-endless list of delicious fresh fruit smoothie ideas). But for others, finding new ways to incorporate produce into your diet—or the diet of your little one—is close to impossible.
Dried fruit can be a lifesaver in this department. It's sweet, snackable, and can be taken on the go a heck of a lot easier than a few easy-to-bruise bananas or bulky cartons of berries. One taste of Trader Joe's dried mango is enough to make you give up fresh fruit for good if forced to choose. But if you've ever reached the bottom of a bag in a single sitting and found yourself wondering how healthy dried fruit really is—and how it stacks up nutritionally next to its fresh produce counterpart—you've come to the right place. We tapped nutrition expert Amy Shapiro, RD, to give us the lowdown on our dried fruit addiction.
Is Dried Fruit Healthy?
Short answer: Yes, because eating fruit in any form is better than consuming zero fruit. "Also, since dried fruit is condensed by weight, it provides about 3.5 times the fiber and nutrients as fresh fruit," Shapiro explains. "Dried fruits are a very rich source of fiber as well as antioxidants, especially polyphenols." The specific health benefits will, of course, depend on what variety of fruit you're snacking on, but you can count on digestive benefits and antioxidants regardless.
What Are the Drawbacks of Eating Dried Fruit?
"Because dried fruits are concentrated (the water has been removed) they come in small, dense packages that are very high in sugar and calories," Shapiro explains. "This makes it easy to eat too many at one time, which can quickly lead to increased sugar and caloric intake, and in turn, weight gain."
Her point makes sense—after all, when was the last time you ate 15 apricots or four entire mangoes? When the substantial water content of a fruit is extracted, the entire thing shrinks your apple or apricot down to being bite-sized, which can cause major portion distortion (especially when you consider the amount of naturally-occurring sugar that fruits contain.)
"Additionally, due to the high fiber content and certain natural sugar alcohols, some dried fruits can cause GI distress from bloating, gas, and diarrhea," adds Shapiro. She says that the most important step when shopping is to read nutrition labels and ingredient lists, as many dried fruits contain added sugars in the form of juices, syrups, or even crystallized sugar. "In order to maintain colors, some brands even use sulfites, and some individuals can be allergic to sulfites and react negatively. Finally, depending on how dried fruit is stored it can contain fungi or toxins so know where you are getting them from."
The Healthiest Way to Consume Dried Fruit
"I recommend limiting portions to one serving, cutting up larger pieces of dried fruit, and mixing it in with nuts or into a salad to dilute their intensity while still allowing for some sweetness," recommends Shapiro. "Enjoy fresh fruit instead some days. And even when buying from bulk bins, read nutrition labels to determine proper portion sizes and read ingredients to ensure you are avoiding unnecessary added sugars and preservatives. And lastly, consider dried fruit a 'treat.'"
Does Dried Fruit Offer the Same Benefits as Fresh Fruit?
"On many levels, it does since it provides fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants," Shapiro explains. "It does not, however, provide hydration or volume, which both help you to feel satisfied from one serving while diluting the sugar content."
Additionally, she emphasizes that the dried fruit itself offers different nutrients—just as different fruits offer different nutrients and therefore health benefits. "So prunes provide fiber, GI regularity, and calcium to strengthen bones. Dates have been shown to assist with fertility and labor, are the most nutrient-dense of dried fruit options and have a low GI index (so it doesn't affect blood sugar levels as intensely). Apricots without sulfites are better than apricots with sulfites. Finally, raisins, the most popular of dried fruits, can assist with blood pressure, decrease cholesterol levels, and aid in satiety." Which certainly counts for a lot.