Coming in all colors, flavors, shapes, and textures, fruits are the most eye-catching and satisfyingly sweet food group. While fruits are available in many forms (e.g., canned, dried, fresh, frozen, and 100% juice), most people have a preferred form, which is likely influenced by many factors—including how healthy they perceive that form to be. Our annual IFIC Food and Health Survey has over the years explored Americans’ views on the healthiest food forms, and fresh consistently comes out on top (followed by frozen and canned). But is fresh fruit really always best—or your only option? Read on to find out.
What counts as a fruit?
While there may be barriers—like lack of convenience, cost, and busy schedules—to eating enough fruit each day, for many people, eating a fruit-filled diet might be easier than we think. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), the fruit food group consists of whole fruits and 100% fruit juice. But whole fruits don’t have to be found fresh in the produce section—they can also be canned, dried, or frozen varieties that we can eat cut, cubed, diced, sliced, or whole. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate also counts cooked, mashed, and pureed fruits as whole fruits. More specifically, the DGAs recommend that whole fruit should make up at least half of the amount of fruit that we eat each day, and that it’s best to eat fruits that feature a wide variety of colors. Some widely available fruits, like apples and bananas, can be found fresh year-round, while others, like peaches, are considered more seasonal. For seasonal fruits, buying frozen or canned varieties are great options when the fruit in question is out of season.
What are the benefits of eating fruit?
No matter its form, fruit is a critical part of any healthy eating pattern. There are many reasons to reach for the fruit bowl, whether for a sweet snack, to get an energy boost, to support body weight goals, to eat more plant-based foods, or to contribute to better heart health. Eating fruit supports good health mainly due to the vital nutrients that fruits contribute to our diet, like fiber and potassium. Fruit is also an excellent source of health-boosting nutrients like carotenoids, flavonoids, and phenols. A healthy diet that contains the recommended amount of fruit supports immune health, strengthens bones, and lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer.
On average, health experts recommend that we eat at least 1.5–2.5 cups of fruit each day. The precise amount of fruit that works for you, however, can depend on a variety of factors, including age, gender, and physical activity level. For example, for a person on a 2,000-calorie diet, it’s recommended to eat about two cups of fruit per day. To calculate the amount of daily fruit that’s right for you, you can create a personalized MyPlate Plan and then visit MyPlate’s Cup of Fruit Table to understand what a cup of fruit might look like for you. Here’s a snapshot for quick reference:
1 cup = 1 small apple = ½ large apple = ½ cup dried
1 cup = 1 large banana = ⅔ cup mashed
1 cup = 5 fresh figs = 10 dried figs
1 cup = 22 seedless grapes
1 cup = 1 large peach = 2 halves (canned)
1 cup = 8 large strawberries (fresh or frozen)
It’s safe to say that, while most of us know eating more fruit is good for our health, having this knowledge doesn’t necessarily change our eating habits. In fact, fruit intake in America is far from pear-fect—it’s a bit in the pits. Only about one in ten U.S. adults gets enough fruit each day, and it’s been this way for decades. According to the DGAs, an alarming eight in ten Americans aren’t eating enough fruit, with the average person eating a little under one cup a day (about 0.5–1.5 cups less than recommended daily). Toddlers (ages 1 to 3) and older adults (ages 71 and up) eat fruit more frequently than any other age group.
You may have heard people say that eating more fruit is bad for our health because of its high sugar content. While it’s true that fruit contains sugar, it’s also true that fruit is one of the healthiest food choices you can make. If you are confused about how fruit can be healthy if it contains sugar, consider this: Whole fruit naturally contains sugar, not added sugars. There are no recommendations in the U.S. for how much natural sugar is healthy to consume, but experts do recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of our daily calories, or less than 50 grams of added sugars for every 2,000 calories. Whole fruit does not contain any added sugar, and what’s more, it’s important to remember that fruit doesn’t only contain natural sugar—it also offers numerous nutrients including fiber, especially berries, which can help to slow down how quickly our body absorbs sugar. In other words, naturally occurring sugars from fruit don’t have to be forbidden fruits—they’re safe and nutritious to consume as part of an overall healthy diet.
All this said, it’s true that some foods and beverages that count as fruit in the DGAs do contain added sugars. If you are looking to reduce the amount of added sugar that you consume, use Nutrition Facts labels to compare products and choose foods with less added sugar. The Nutrition Facts label lets us know which nutrients a food or beverage contains and how much of those nutrients it contains, including how much each serving contributes to our daily nutrient needs. In general, you can use the “5/20 rule” to know whether a food is low or high in a nutrient such as added sugars by looking at the far-right column—the percent daily value (%DV):
- 5% DV or less means that a product is LOW in added sugars
- 20% DV or greater indicates that a product is HIGH in added sugars
The short answer is no. Drinking fruit juice is not bad, but there are some important things to know. First, infants under the age of one should not consume juice of any kind, not even 100% fruit or vegetable juice. If toddlers are given juice, it should be 100% juice and no more than four ounces per day. It is recommended that children under 2 years of age do not consume any added sugars.
And here’s what both kids and adults need to know about juice: Although 100% juice counts toward our daily fruit intake, whole fruit, not juice, should be the primary source of fruit in our diet. That’s because there are typically more calories, more added sugars, and less fiber in juice than in a piece of fruit. When choosing between juices, look for 100% fruit juice and no added sugar as often as possible, and keep calorie content in mind, as it’s easier to overconsume calories from juice than it is from whole fruit.
It’s not all cut-and-dried: Fruits in many forms make a grape part of our eating routine, and getting enough fruit is key for our health. Fresh fruits are wonderful, but individuals and families can also maximize nutrition and cut down on food waste by having a variety of fruits on hand in various forms.
While there’s no denying fruit’s appeal, the trick to eating more fruit in a sustainable and nutritious way is to create more opportunities to build daily habits that can easily become part of our routines. Here are a few tips to load up on fruit in its healthiest forms:
- Add fruit to breakfast foods you may already be eating, like cereal, granola, oatmeal, pancakes, waffles, or yogurt.
- Indulge in a protein-packed fruit smoothie.
- Have various forms of fruit available on hand to grab as a snack.
- Look for 100% fruit juices as often as possible.
- When buying canned fruits, choose those that are canned in water or 100% juice (not syrup).
- Eat fruit for dessert. Try a couple great recipes from our friends at MyPlate: tasty fruit pizza and berries and banana cream.
This article includes contributions from Kris Sollid, RD and Nutrition On Demand.