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Lemons
Lemons

By Drew Parisi, Certified Nutrition Consultant

Lemons are one of several fruits we don't typically consume whole due to their sour, pucker-inducing flavor. Rather, they are normally used to enhance the flavor of a dish with their bright, acidic taste. But don't let their low rate of consumption fool you; lemons are packed with nutrition and are one of the best sources of antioxidants even in small doses.

Like many of the citrus fruits we are familiar with today, lemons were not one of the original four members of the citrus family (the originals being citron, pomelo, mandarin and papeda). Lemons are thought to have originated in China or India as a cross between the lime and citron fruits. They were brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the New World as a preventative treatment for scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin C. Grown mainly in Florida, lemons made their way west during the California Gold Rush where they were again used to protect against the development of scurvy.

We now have a more stable supply of fresh food and don't see many instances of scurvy, but the nutrition from lemons is just as valuable as it was during the Gold Rush. Lemons are a great source of vitamin C and fiber, and contain many plant compounds, minerals and essential oils. Vitamin C is an important nutrient because it is an antioxidant that protects our bodies from free radicals. Free radicals can cause damage to healthy cells, which can ultimately lead to aging and disease. Because free radicals are an unavoidable part of our environment, making their way into our bodies through our air, food, x-ray machines, chemicals, sunlight, and even natural processes like digestion, exercise and breathing, it is important to fortify our diet with antioxidants to fight off free radicals as much as possible.

The trick to finding the juiciest lemon is to choose one with thin, finely grainy skin and that feels heavy for its size. Lemons with thicker peels will have less flesh and be less juicy. If you're going to juice a lemon, roll it on a flat surface with the palm of your hand to release the juices before cutting. Lemon juice should have many of the same nutritional benefits as whole lemons, but be sure to include some of the pulp because the pectins in the pulp can promote satiety and feed the beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Lemonade should have similar health benefits, but the added sugar can be very harmful when consumed in excess.

With fresh lemons available all year around, there are plenty of opportunities to incorporate lemons into a healthy diet. Here are some simple ideas:

Squeeze or place slices of lemons into a glass of water for a refreshing drink

Squeeze lemon juice on salads or vegetables for added flavor

Squeeze lemon juice on raw fruits like apples, pears or avocados to keep them from turning brown

Grate lemon zest over rice, oatmeal, salads or any other dish!

Potatoes
Potatoes

Today, potatoes are pound-for-pound the most consumed vegetable in the United States. This fact isn't surprising when you consider the amount of French fries and potato chips that are eaten each day. However, potatoes weren't always so popular. In fact, they were initially met with quite a bit of skepticism.

Potatoes are believed to have been originally cultivated by farmers in the Andean region of South America. When Spanish explorers came to the area in the early 16th century, they were excited by this hearty, easy-to-grow vegetable and took potatoes with them back to Europe. While they were readily adopted in Spain and Italy, other parts of Europe were slower to warm up to this new vegetable. Many people knew that other members of the nightshade family were poisonous, so they feared potatoes would be dangerous to eat. Others were suspicious of the vegetable because potatoes are not mentioned in the Bible, while others believed that eating potatoes would cause leprosy.

Because potatoes were easy to grow and inexpensive to produce, European rulers felt they were a good way to feed the poor. In order to turn the tide of popular opinion, a plan had to be devised to bring potatoes into fashion. In the 18th century, a French agronomist created a scheme where peasants could "steal" potatoes from the King's "guarded" gardens. He also developed the "mashed potato," which didn't resemble the vegetable and was more likely to be enjoyed by the public. A member of the British scientific group the Royal Society created a mush soup made of potatoes, barley, peas and vinegar, which the German peasants adopted as a satisfying and inexpensive dish.

Eventually, potatoes became quite popular in Europe – so much so that a potato blight in Ireland caused major devastation. During the Irish Potato Famine in 1845 and 1846, almost three quarters of a million people died and hundreds of thousands emigrated to other countries, including the United States, in search of sustenance.

Today, this once infamous vegetable is one of the most popular throughout the world, and for good reason. Potatoes are a wonderful source of vitamin B6, potassium, copper, manganese, phosphorous, niacin, dietary fiber, pantothenic acid and vitamin C. They are such a good source of vitamin C, in fact, that Spanish sailors found they could eat them to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin C. The potato skin is a concentrated source of dietary fiber, so to get the most nutritional value from this vegetable, enjoy the skin as well as the flesh.

In California, potatoes are planted in the spring and early summer and harvested in the late summer and through the fall. They are the swollen portions of the underground stem and they are designed to store and provide food for the green leafy portion of the plant. If allowed to flower and fruit, the potato plant will bear an inedible fruit resembling a tomato. Along with tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and tomatillos, potatoes are non-poisonous members of the nightshade family.

When choosing a potato, look for one that feels firm, is well shaped, and relatively smooth. A few "eye" or blemishes are okay, but avoid those with decay or green coloration. Ideally, potatoes should be stored in a dark, cool, dry place like a basement or dark closet. In this type of environment potatoes can last about two months. If potatoes are kept in the kitchen, store them in a paper or burlap bag and avoid storing them in the refrigerator as their starch content will turn to sugar, giving them an undesirable taste. According to the Environmental Working Group's 2015 report "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides," conventionally grown potatoes are among the top 12 fruits and vegetables on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found. Therefore, individuals wanting to avoid pesticide-associated health risks may want to avoid consumption of potatoes unless they are grown organically.

Here are some creative ways to enjoy potatoes:

  • Make a breakfast hash with diced potatoes, onions and bell peppers. Top with an egg.
  • Liven up your mashed potatoes by adding chopped herbs or pesto.
  • Simply steam potatoes and add a little salt, garlic, butter, or olive oil.
  • Roast potatoes with olive oil and garlic for a savory side dish.
  • Bake whole potatoes and top with broccoli, green onions, butter or sour cream.
  • Puree and make a potato soup.

~Drew Parisi, certified nutrition consultant

Grapes
Grapes

Some are sweet, others are tart, but they're always fun to pop in your mouth for a quick and simple snack. Grapes are some of the most commonly eaten snack fruits and it appears they have been popular for quite some time. Wild grapes have grown since prehistoric times and they are thought to have been first cultivated in Asia in as early as 5000 B.C. References to grapes make appearances in biblical stories and are pictured in hieroglyphics in ancient Egyptian tombs. While wine-producing areas are well known for growing grapes, grapes are native to many parts of the world, including regions in Asia, Africa, North America and the Mediterranean.

There are thousands of different grape varieties and they are used for a number of purposes including snacking, making grape juice, fermenting wine and producing raisins. The grapes we are used to snacking on are called "table grapes" and they are often larger in size, seedless, and have thin skins. While we're used to seeing grapes of many colors like green, red and even black, grapes also come in yellow, blue, crimson, pink and purple.

While many people assume that seedless produce has been genetically engineered, this is most often not the case with seedless grapes. While genetically engineered grapes do exist, they are rare in the marketplace. Seedless varieties of grapes can come about in a number of different ways. Some are a result of natural mutations, which can be capitalized on to allow for commercial production. Other grape varieties will produce seedless fruit if they are not pollinated. Still other varieties of seedless grapes can be produced by crossbreeding or grafting.

Grapes are a wonderful source of phytonutrients, with a large amount of antioxidants in the skin of the fruit. When you're looking to enjoy the most flavorful, nutrient-rich fruit, choose grapes that are plump and free of wrinkles to ensure they are fully ripened. Grapes should be firmly attached to the stem with consistent color, even surrounding the stem. Store grapes in the refrigerator to keep them fresh and clip off the stem of sections you eat so the remaining grapes don't dry out. According to the Environmental Working Group, grapes are among the top 12 fruits and vegetables on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found. If you're trying to reduce your exposure to pesticides, choose organic grapes.

Because raisins are simply dried grapes, many people assume their nutritional properties will be the same. However, this is not necessarily the case. Raisins are made from dehydrating grapes in a process that either involves the heat of the sun or a mechanical process of oven drying. During the dehydrating process, water content is reduced and sugar and calories are concentrated in a smaller fruit. An ounce of raisins has about four times the amount of sugar and calories than an ounce of grapes.

While grapes are supremely enjoyable straight off the stem, here are some creative ways to incorporate grapes into your diet:

  • Wash, de-stem, and freeze grapes for a cool treat.
  • Make a smoothie with green grapes, spinach and coconut milk
  • Dip one end of grapes into melted chocolate and let harden for a special dessert
  • Add halved grapes to salads, pasta or grain salads
  • Add chopped grapes to pancakes as they cook
Avocado
Avocado

It's avocado month! The avocado is believed to be native to Mexico and even parts of Southern California. Today, about 59,000 acres of avocado farms, making up 95 percent of the United States' avocado production, are located in Southern California. The avocado is also the official fruit (yes, fruit!) of California. These fruits mature on trees, but ripen off the tree, as you may have noticed when shopping for them at the grocery store. Each year during the month of February, avocado trees start to bloom in preparation to become a delicious and nutritious fruit. By May, harvesting of avocados is well underway and we can enjoy fresh, California-grown avocados through the early fall. Luckily, avocados are naturally nutrient dense and contain around 20 vitamins and minerals. Also the mono and polyunsaturated fats (good fats) in avocados help reduce blood cholesterol levels and decrease overall risk of heart disease. The fats in avocado may also help you better absorb other nutrients from plant foods – especially fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K. Did you know avocados also contain more potassium than a banana? Many people do not get enough potassium in their diets; however, high potassium intakes are shown to reduce blood pressure which is important in order to avoid heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. We hope you enjoy our featured avocado recipes at lunchtime as we kick of the 2015-16 school year!

Fun facts about avocados:

  • In Brazil, avocado mixed with ice cream (avocado milkshake) is a very popular dessert.
  • The oldest living avocado tree is not far from us! It was planted at the UC Berkeley campus in 1879.
  • One avocado tree can produce 500 avocados a year.
  • Avocados have the highest fiber content of any fruit.
Melons
Melons

Melons are members of the Cucurbitaceous family. Cucurbitaceous is a large family which includes hundreds of species of produce such as squash, pumpkin, zucchini, cucumbers, watermelon and other melons. This month we will be focusing on the latter: watermelon and other melons like cantaloupe and honey dew, for example. Honeydew and cantaloupe belong to a species of melon called Muskmelon. Although often eaten and associated with honeydew and cantaloupe, the watermelon is not a Muskmelon and falls under a species of melon called Lanatus. Melons originated in Africa (watermelon was found growing wild here!) and Asia and are among the earliest plants to be domesticated. In fact, watermelons were very popular in the Roman Empire and Ancient Egypt. Also, European settlers as early as the 1600s were thought to have grown honeydew in their fields and gardens.

Melons are generally eaten mature when the flesh becomes sweet and consumed raw, compared to other Cucurbitaceous fruits or vegetables that are consumed immature and cooked beforehand. However, not just the flesh is edible on mature melons, some African and Indian cultures roast or dry the seeds of melons and eat them. In Chinese medicine almost all parts of the melon is used. Melons are very high in essential vitamins and minerals; they contain vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium and lycopene. Red-fleshed watermelon is a source of lycopene, a plant pigment that can help protect your heart. Cantaloupe provides a good source of potassium, a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure and more. Honeydew also contains a significant amount of phosphorous as well as fiber, Vitamin C and B-6.

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