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The Inside Story on Dried Fruit: Healthy or Fattening?


The Inside Story on Dried Fruit: Healthy or Fattening?

January 17, 2014

Dried fruits are hailed by many as a quick and healthy bite for this “on-the-go” world. But hidden sugars and high prices are less than ideal. So we tried our hand at making healthy dried fruits at home, to see just how easy it is to make our own low cost, low sugar snack.

For step-by-step instructions, see below:

Photography by Justine Hand.

Above: On my counter, a veritable cornucopia of fresh fruit waits to be dried.

So…what is the skinny on the nutritional value of dried fruit?

Dried fruits retain much of their essential vitamins and antioxidants, but when you heat fruit, it loses some vitamins (like C and A), as well as minerals such as calcium and potassium. According to the women’s health website Life Script, a fresh, raw apricot has 90.6 milligrams of potassium. That same apricot, after being dried, only has 40.7 milligrams of potassium.

For those watching their weight, it is important to note that dried fruit also maintains its original sugars, and therefore, calories. For example, half of a dried apricot has the same calories as half a fresh apricot. But because dried fruit is less filling (and smaller in volume), you tend to eat more. Again according to Life Script, 1/2 cup of fresh apricots has 74 calories, while 1/2 cup of dried fruits has 313! In some fruits such as blueberries, drying can double or triple the sugar, so be careful of calorie content.

But that’s never stopped anyone from eating it. Dried fruit has been enjoyed by humans for many millennia, with the earliest mention from a Mesopotamia dating from 1700 BC. Throughout ancient times and beyond, from China to Rome, dried fruit continued to be prized for its longevity, portability, and tastiness. 

In ancient times, dried fruit was pretty DIY. Today, there are whole supermarket aisles devoted to dried fruit, where it is promoted as a healthy snack. But too often store brands are loaded with extra sugar or cost a premium.

Fortunately, it is still quite simple to make your own dried fruit at home, and not terribly labor intensive. Last fall I tried the oldest method of dehydrating fruit–drying apples in the sun. This week I put more modern methods to the test and delved deeper into the nutritional merits of dried fruit.

Above: Before you slice, make sure your fruit is thoroughly washed and dried.

Almost any fruit can be dried. (But as I found out, some are easier than others.) The most important thing is to choose the best quality fruit you can. The fresher it is when you dry it, the more nutritious and tastier it will be when dried.

Which fruit worked best? 

Apples and pears! They dried the fastest and with the most consistent results. I will say though that if you are only going to dry these two, the sun-drying method works just fine. We’re still enjoying the apples I dried in the window last fall.

Pineapples were also delicious, but took a long time to dry. I made the mistake of slicing my apricots in half, like commercial brands. This was too thick and it took more than hours for these to dry. Blueberries took a long time, but these are among the most expensive in stores, so it was worth the wait. At this point, I would not recommend bananas to an amateur. Both in the oven and the dehydrator, they just came out like little brown lumps, even after the lemon bath. Too bad. Anyone have any tips here?

Also, in the future, I would dry one type of fruit at a time. Constantly checking the oven and dehydrator slowed the drying process.

Above: If you so desire, peel the fruit before you slice it. Also remove pits, seeds, or stems. Then cut it into 1/4-inch thick slices.

Above: Drying fruit is an excellent activity for kids. Here my daughter Solvi slices bananas using a safe Plastic Knife, available at Montessori N’Such; $4.50. 

Above: Fruits such as apples, pears, apricots, and bananas can oxidize into an unattractive brown. Pre-treatment with citrus or ascorbic acid helps these fruits maintain their fresh color, prolongs shelf life, and aids in the retention of essential vitamins, like C. (I thought it made them taste better too.)

To pre-treat with lemon juice, mix a solution of 2 parts water to 1 part lemon juice. After slicing, immediately submerge the fruit and let soak for from five to ten minutes. Then remove and let dry. 

Ascorbic acid can be found at your local grocery store. To use this method, follow the directions of the package.

Above: After the fruit is sliced and pre-treated, arrange it in the dehydrator tray. Make sure the pieces do not overlap, as this can impeded the drying process. Since fruits dry at different rates depending on the thickness and water content, it is advisable to group like fruit together. 

Above: In order to retain as much of the heat-sensitive vitamins A and C as possible, fruits are dried at a low temperature, from 130 to 140 degrees. This takes a minimum of four hours depending on many things: humidity of the air, amount and type of fruit, and thickness of the cut. Check your fruit periodically and pick out any pieces that are dry.

There are many hydrators available that range from small to industrial size. For my project, I chose a countertop Gardenmaster from Nesco; $130. With four trays, it holds a good amount of fruit.

Above: In addition to the dehydrator, I also tried oven drying. This method is ideal for those who want to dabble in dried fruits or try it before investing in a dehydrator.

To dry fruits in the oven, many sites recommend simply arranging them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. I did not find this very effective, so later I placed larger chunks on a rack above the cookie sheet to speed up the drying time.

As in the dehydrator, the oven temperature should be quite low, about 140 degrees, in order to maintain vitamin levels. Make sure you prop open the door to let out the steam.

Above: Strawberries dried in the dehydrator. After fruit is dry, immediately place it in an airtight container, and store in a dark, dry place until you are ready to enjoy it.

Above: I’m going to use my dried fruit as a healthy school snack. (See above to see just how healthy it is.)

Above: Results from the dehydrator (L to R): my pineapple, apples, blueberries, pears, and apricots were actually tastier than many store-bought samples I’ve tried.

The Results:

Drying fruit at home was definitely worth it, especially when you consider the cost savings. But it does take a significant amount of time, so make sure you plan your drying when someone will be home all day.

In the end, I have to say that the Nesco dehydrator produced more predictable results than the oven. It dried the fruit faster and more evenly, and the fruit retained more of its original color. The dehydrator also allows you to dry more fruit at once, especially if you add more trays.

N.B. Erin recently had better luck with her oven drying. Check out her DIY on Dried Fruit Garland

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