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Thrifty Fruits and Vegetables: A Survival Guide

Note: This guide is written by Muriel Fraser and is published here with her permission.

It's a myth that fruit and vegetables are only for the well-off. If we use our heads instead of just our pocketbooks, all of us should be able to eat healthfully. Here are some tips on how to do this.

Can't afford blueberries? No problem, we can still manage an excellent diet without these little orbs of health. Many dried fruits offer similar health benefits, but at a much lower price. Furthermore, vegetables and even some grains, tend to be cheaper than fruit and can be good substitutes. There are also a number of health-giving beverages and spices that are derived from plants, yet cost far less than conventional fruits and vegetables and have fewer calories as well. However, spices should be well cooked, as they are the major source of salmonella poisoning.

Why we need plant foods
Fruit and vegetables are more than food. Their role is not limited to the two kinds of nutrients they offer, as important as these are. In addition to their macro-nutrients -- the protein, fats and carbohydrates which build up and maintain our bodies -- they also furnish micro-nutrients -- the tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals that help us to convert the food into energy and keep our bodies running smoothly. However, beyond these, plant foods provide us with a third kind of benefit -- huge numbers of phytochemicals, which means plant chemicals.

The importance of phytochemicals has only recently been recognized and their total number is unknown, though over 1,000 have been identified so far. Phytochemicals are called non-nutrients because their role is unconnected with food. They are best known as antioxidants, but they do many other things that keep us from falling ill and help us stay young longer. This is why we must find ways to get more fruit and vegetables, even when grocery money is tight. Our health, both now and later, depends on it.

Vegetables tend to be cheaper than fruit
Compared to vegetables, fruit tends to be expensive, with only apples and oranges remaining affordable year round. But during the Second World War, when oranges were unobtainable, the Norwegians ate turnips, which are so rich in vitamin C that they were called northern oranges. To stretch our food budget further we can follow the same strategy today and use vegetables in place of expensive fruit.

Many people do not like to eat vegetables -- and the feeling is mutual. Plants evolved many of their phytochemicals to keep from being eaten by animals, large and small. Some phytochemicals kill bacteria, others harm insects and still others discourage animals such as humans, by tasting bitter. The plants' defense strategy leads to a central paradox in nutrition: many of the plants that do us the most good have an uninspiring taste.

That is why many recipes revolve around minimizing and masking vegetable flavors. One way is to only cook the vegetables lightly, so as not to bring out the bitterness. This is healthy and free. Another is to hide the taste of vegetables by heaping them with butter, bacon and cheese (think of spinach quiche.) This is unhealthful and expensive. Instead, you can combine the vegetables with chili, curry or other spices or with wholesome, strong-flavored foods such as sardines, onions or tomato paste.

Nutritious and free
Unless we live in the country or can afford to spend weekends there, we are not likely to be able to take advantage of wild fruits, berries, greens, mushrooms and nuts -- with one exception. The humble dandelion grows in abundance even in town. The only problem is to find plants on ground that has never been sprayed and is well away from the pollution of traffic and industry.

You can gather the greens the day before, wash them and keep a bouquet of them in a jar of water in the fridge. The bitterest part of them is the central rib, so just before eating them, grasp the base of the stalk with one hand and strip off the leaves with the other, zip, zip, zip. Unless they are for a salad or a sandwich, cook them just enough to make them go limp. Brief cooking helps release the phytochemicals from the cells, but is not enough to bring out the bitterness. A whole handful of chopped dandelion greens easily disappears into a reheated chili or a curry.

Shop for color
Many vegetables have colors just as intense as fruit, and contain just as many phytochemicals -- think of purple onions, red cabbage, beets (beetroot), orange carrots, sweet potatoes and dark green leafy vegetables. To get the biggest nutritional bang for your buck, go for colors that are bright or deep. These indicate the presence of colorful phytochemicals, many of which act as antioxidants. They include the carotenoids (named after one of their sources, carrots), the betalains (after beets or beetroot) and the huge group of flavinoids (from a Latin word meaning yellow, although they can also be red, purple or blue).

The carotenoids give colors ranging from pale yellow through bright orange to deep red. Their presence is obvious in vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes, but they are also present in leafy green vegetables. There they help the plant use energy from the sun by absorbing some of the wavelengths of light not picked up by chlorophyll. Normally they are hidden by the green chlorophyll, (which is itself a phytochemical), but when that goes, the leaves turn yellow and the carotenoids are revealed.

Carotenoids can even be detected in the healthy glow that they give to very fair-skinned people. And the benefits are more than cosmetic. Carotenoids help to prevent heart disease, some kinds of cancers, cataracts and the macular degeneration that leads to blindness in old age.

Another group of phytochemicals is the huge family of flavonoids. These are found in many fruits and berries and sometimes even in the bright feathers and beaks of the birds that feast on them. Flavonoids also provide the red colours of flowers and autumn leaves. But these plant chemicals do more than just look pretty. Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants that can help us to avoid cancer, heart problems and even diseases of the brain such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Vegetables come in many different shades -- pastel, bright or dark -- and the intensity of their colors can be a guide to their food value. This means that when money is tight, it is best to pass up the pale leaves of iceberg lettuce that are 96 percent water and have relatively few antioxidants. The much darker color of curly kale signals both its lower water content of only 80 percent (about average for vegetables) and its higher score for antioxidants -- about fifteen times as much as lettuce. That's a real bargain.

Color can also be found in thrifty legumes, with beans and lentils providing a whole palette. No need to bother with the standard baked beans, which are just white navy beans that have been tarted up with a bit of sugary tomato sauce and lots of salt. Instead, go for the deep red kidney beans, found in cans in most supermarkets, and bags of split red lentils. In Asian shops there will be a much wider selection. There, among many others, you can find brown lentils, which are the whole seeds, and red ones which are just the hulled, split version of the brown ones. And for a really deep shade, you can't do better than delicious black beans.

Dried beans and lentils can be soaked overnight and then simmered, with a tin of tomato paste and a dash of oil added towards the end. The oil helps to release the phytochemicals from the cells of the tomatoes. (Of course that's real tomato paste, not ketchup, which costs more and is about a quarter sugar -- a bad buy.) You can add diced leeks or onions, as well as chili, curry or other spices. They will add zip and also mask a handful of chopped greens slipped in at the end.

Choose colored grains such as popcorn or red and black rice
Bright colored coatings are not confined to vegetables. They also appear in grains, such as the red and black rice that can be found at Asian shops. Another grain is multicolored Indian corn. This black, red and blue corn is rich in flavonoids, but it is now so expensive that it is mostly used for decoration.

All that is readily and cheaply available is the golden-hulled popcorn, but even this shows how valuable skins can be. It's not the fluffy white innards that are rich in phytochemicals, but the pellicule, the golden brown skin. In fact, in terms of weight, popcorn has more phytochemicals than many fruits and vegetables. That, of course, is due to the fact that the dried kernels are only about four percent water, while most fruits and vegetables have their nutrients diluted by a water content of at least 80%.

Another plus for popcorn is that it is a completely unprocessed whole grain. Baked goods that are called "whole grain" are actually made from whole-grain flour, a finely pulverised product that can cause a damaging spike in blood sugar. Popcorn, on the other hand, still contains its fiber, and -- even after being popped -- some of its original structure, as you can tell from its chewiness. This causes it to be absorbed more slowly. Furthermore, when baked goods are claimed to be made from whole grain flour, that simply means that over 51 percent of their weight is pulverised whole grains, and the rest can be white flour, fat, salt, sugar and additives. Popcorn has none of this, but we must not spoil this pristine grain with expensive, damaging additives of our own -- no salt, no butter and no caramel coating, if you please!

For those of us who are used to salty, sugary processed foods, anything without these "taste enhancers" may seem bland at first. It takes about six weeks for us to get used to a low-salt diet and it's similar for sugar. However, cutting back on sugar soon makes many processed foods taste sickly sweet. You will know that you have successfully down-regulated your sugar-receptors when you can taste the natural sweetness of almonds. It's like leaving the bright artificial lights of the city and learning to enjoy the starry sky.

To start getting accustomed to the natural taste of popcorn, buy a cheap bag of kernels and air-pop them in the microwave. Just pour the kernels into a glass casserole in a thin layer, no more than two deep. Cover and put on high. Once the popped kernels have begun to fill the bowl you may want to scoop out the ones that are done, before they burn, and return the un-popped kernels to finish popping the laggards. Air-popped popcorn smells and tastes like fresh-baked bread -- yet it is far cheaper. When the air-popped kernels are eaten as is, they are nutritional gold nuggets.

Spend your money on the fruit, not the juice
It's best to avoid fruit juices, no matter how brightly colored they may be. When the food industry squeezes oranges it sells the most nutritious part, the pulp, for cattle feed. The cows get the best part and we are left with the juice, which is something we did not evolve to cope with. Like other whole fruits, an orange has been found to be safe even for diabetics — but certainly not its juice. Without the fiber the natural sugars are absorbed so quickly that they increase the bad cholesterol instead of lowering it, as the whole fruit does.

And that is not the only problem. Like other sugared drinks, fruit juice increases the risk of getting diabetes. This is because orange juice passes immediately into the intestines, gets absorbed there and causes a rapid rise in blood sugar, which over time, increases insulin resistance and can lead to diabetes. By contrast, a whole orange takes a more leisurely route. It can stay in the stomach for up to five hours, thus avoiding the damaging blood-sugar spike. Oranges also contain much more than vitamin C. They give us other crucial vitamins, important minerals and, as their color implies, lots of valuable phytochemicals, as well. An orange a day is a nutritional bargain we can't afford to miss.

Go for thrifty dried fruit
Dried fruit is, in many respects, almost as good as the more expensive fresh fruit. It is true that the drying process destroys some of the heat-sensitive vitamins like C and A, but we can get these from many other sources. Furthermore, the dried fruit retains all of its fiber and most of its phytochemicals. So if you can't afford fresh black currants, purple plums and grapes (and these days who can?) you can get these year-round as thrifty dried currants, prunes and raisins.

However, while the dark color of currants and prunes is due to their phytochemicals, in raisins it is due to their processing. The deep-coloured California raisins are not made from purple grapes, but from green Thompson grapes that have been darkened by air-drying which oxidises them and reduces the effect of the antioxidant phytochemicals. Even so, it is far better to get sweetness by using raisins than by adding sugar.

Eat stems and skins
The skins of many fruits and vegetables are best left on, and not only because vitamins tend to be concentrated right beneath the skin. The colored skins themselves contain valuable phytochemicals. However, if you are going to eat the natural "packaging", do make sure that it is clean. The British Health Service (NHS) says that even organic fruit and vegetables should be washed in order to remove any bacteria picked up from the soil or the handling. And to get rid of the pesticides from non-organic fruit and vegetables a more thorough scrub is needed. For leafy vegetables the American Health Department (NIH) recommends discarding the outer leaves and then rinsing well with tap water. For hard-skinned ones the advice is to rinse with lots of warm water mixed with salt and vinegar.

However, the outer skin of citrus fruits is to be avoided, as it is likely to be contaminated with pesticides. In fact, it is best to wash the oranges with soap and warm water as soon as you bring them home. Then you do not have to worry about transmitting pesticide residues to the fruit while you peel it. But the inner layer is a different matter. The soft, bland-tasting, white pith or "albedo" which is just beneath the colored outer skin of oranges is rich in several phytochemicals which can help the body fight cancer.

And don't forget the skins of nuts such as peanuts, hazelnuts and almonds. If you buy peanuts in the shell you not only avoid the added oil and salt, but also get a bonus. For the nut skins, the pellicule, are full of beneficial phytochemicals. Luckily the cheapest peanuts, the ones meant for feeding wild birds, also retain their skins. These peanuts are sold raw, but they taste delicious after being roasted in the oven or microwave.

We should also remember to use the broccoli stems. Broccoli, which contains many different phytochemicals, competes with kale for the title of the most nutritious vegetable and it is much more widely available. Broccoli becomes an even better bargain when you use its crisp, bright green stems. Diced and cooked with chopped carrots, they make a colourful, nourishing mixture. The stems must be cooked, of course, but it turns out that the tiny florets are best left raw. However, if the crunch is unacceptable, lightly cooked broccoli florets are still far better than none. Raw broccoli stalks can also be shredded to make a delicious coleslaw or to add to any green salad.

Cook lightly with a dash of oil
Although cooking destroys some of the vitamins, it also helps to release some of the phytochemicals. Except for broccoli florets, cooking most vegetables just long enough to slightly soften them can increase their value, as this breaks down the cell walls and lets the phytochemicals out. To make them even more accessible, we can cook the vegetables with a bit of oil. This causes a chemical reaction which allows the body to better absorb the freed phytochemicals, sometimes even half as much again. That’s a lot of free food value. And the oil trick works to a certain extent even when the food is not heated. This is why it helps to add oil to a salad dressing.

What kind of oil? Perhaps the best is canola (rapeseed). It is particularly rich in in exactly those fats we need most, the heart-friendly omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. Canola is also the cheapest kind of oil.

Tea is a vegetable
This is the verdict of a scientist who has studied how tea boosts our immune system. He means that tea is a rich source of the phytochemicals. Some of these also help to keep hearts healthy. But to get the benefit, you have to steep the tea properly, the longer the better. If you just dip a teabag into the hot water for a few seconds, you are throwing away good food.

And if you want to use tea as a vegetable, you should also skip the milk, since the proteins in milk bind to the phytochemicals in tea and neutralize them. This prevents the tea from improving the function of the arteries.

Another way to get more phytochemicals from your food -- and more value for your money -- is to combine tea with citrus fruit. You can add lemon juice to tea, or replace the biscuit on the saucer with a healthier alternative, some orange slices.

Which kind of tea is best? Green tea has not been processed as much as black tea, so it retains more of its phytochemicals. In fact, black tea is only dark because it has been oxidized during processing, just like dark raisins. It is true that the phytochemicals in green tea come at a higher supermarket price. However, the boxes of loose green tea from Asian grocery shops tend to be cheaper. And if the taste of green tea is unfamiliar, you can give it a fruity flavor by steeping it with chopped dried currants. Then when the tea is drunk, you can use a teaspoon to enjoy the soft, sweet currants at the bottom of the cup.

Add a pinch of sunny turmeric
Known in India as the poor man's saffron, turmeric is made by grinding up a golden yellow root. Turmeric gives curry its yellow color, but not its heat, which is provided by the chili in the mixture. On its own, turmeric is quite bland and thus lends itself to many different dishes. This amazing spice contains phytochemicals which, among other benefits>, appear to protect the aging brain in at least ten different ways. However, just a pinch will do, as turmeric has an upside down U-shaped curve. This means that large amounts would reverse its benefits. Turmeric can be found in the spice section of the supermarket and in thrifty bags at Asian grocery shops. However, as with all spices, make sure you cook it well, to kill any salmonella.

Cocoa is chocolate without the guilt
For most of its career, which began in prehistoric Mexico, chocolate has been drunk, not eaten. If you make hot cocoa out of cocoa powder you get the taste of bar chocolate, but little of the fat, none of the sugar and all of the health benefits. You can then add artificial sweetener to taste.

Cocoa mixes, on the other hand, are junk food, with 80 percent sugar.  (To get past Nestle's hype, you have to click on the Nutritional Information tab, for which there is no separate URL.) Despite the use of this cheap, damaging filler, they are expensive. Like sugar-laden ketchup, cocoa mixes are such a profitable swindle that they are heavily advertised -- while cheap, nutritious cocoa powder tends to be hidden on the lower supermarket shelves.

Cocoa is full of phytochemicals which help to prevent cancer, heart disease and stroke, and it has even been found to reduce high blood pressure. But, as with tea, to better absorb the freed phytochemicals in cocoa, it should be made with water instead of milk. For an Aztec flavor add a few drops of vanilla to the cup. Aztec gourmets further boosted the phytochemicals in their cocoa by spiking it with chili, but there is really no need to go quite that far.

We can do better than "five a day"
To try to boost the consumption of fruit and vegetables, many countries have recommended that we eat "five a day." However, even a British Department of Health spokesman admitted that this is not enough, but merely what was considered feasible in the UK. A goal that roused resistance could boomerang. In Canada, by contrast, the government feels able to advise eating at least seven to ten portions every day, and this is more in line with what nutritionists recommend.

They say that every serving fruit and vegetables helps to protect us against strokes (by up to 40 percent) and some cancers (by up to 20 percent). By eating lots of fruit and vegetables we can also delay the development of cataracts that cloud our vision, reduce the symptoms of asthma, improve bowel function, better manage diabetes and have stronger bones.

However, despite all these benefits, fewer people are meeting even Britain's modest goal of "five a day". They accept the myth that fruit and vegetables have to be expensive. And on the other side of the Atlantic poor Americans also say that their main reason for not eating more fruit and vegetables is the cost. Yet, it doesn't have to be so. Being poor is quite stressful enough, and the last thing we want, when trying to cope with all the other problems, is bad health. This is when we most need the benefits from eating lots of fruit and vegetables. And if we are determined, we can get them -- even on a budget.

December 8th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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