Just Peachy! The Health Benefits of this Favorite Fruit


MIREILLE BLACKE, MA, RD, CD-N (this article was first published in AUGUST 2012)

Mireille Blacke gives you the skinny on what's fit to eat in this monthly nutrition column. Click the veggies for her archives.

Mireille Blacke gives you the skinny on what’s fit to eat in this monthly nutrition column. Click the veggies for her archives.

“An apple is an excellent thing — until you have tried a peach.”
-George du Maurier

“Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.”
Alice Walker

I have always been what one would consider a “healthy eater,” particularly as a child; though, luckily at that time I was mostly drawn to fruits and vegetables (later was another story). I really loved my “yellows and oranges,” according to my mother, but if I was given the choice between a peach and a nectarine, I was firmly on Team Nectarine. This preference has remained with me to this day. Little did I know that nectarines were actually fuzzless peaches, and I was merely deluding myself.

The cultivation of peaches began in China over 3000 years ago and roughly 45% of the world’s peaches are still produced there. By comparison, the United States produces about 5% of the world’s total. Within the United States, California, Georgia and South Carolina are the largest peach producers. Depending on location, peach season may begin as early as May and run through September, but typically peaks in July or August.

Peaches have been popular in the South since Spanish missionaries brought them to North America (specifically, Georgia) in 1571. Since then peaches have been proudly associated with Georgia, and more recently, South Carolina. Though Georgia is known as “The Peach State,” South Carolina declared the peach its state fruit in 1984, while Georgia did not make the claim until 1995. Also, South Carolina currently exceeds Georgia in terms of annual peach production. Peach crops remain vital to the economies of both states.

Photo by Cary Bass, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Cary Bass, via Wikimedia Commons

Peaches are categorized as drupes, also known as “stone fruits,” due to the inner presence of a single hard stone (or pit) enclosing a seed. Other drupes include cherries, plums, olives, and mangoes.

Peaches are one of those very popular fruits that I feel get taken for granted. We are all familiar with peach pies and cobblers and most of us, particularly Southerners, do love and appreciate such glorious creations. But the media buzz is usually focused on the “next big thing” in the world of nutrition, and with the greater focus on the more exotic pomegranate or acai berry, something as simple as the peach or apple becomes easily overshadowed. (And for the record, there is no nutritional “magic bullet.”) That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about the peach this month: I felt it was long overdue for some attention.

Of course, peaches can be used in pies, cobblers, and traditional desserts like Peach Melba, tarts, and pound cakes, as well as simply eaten raw. But peaches can also be chopped and tossed into salads with greens, chicken, or pork. Mix them into salsa, create a spectacular fruit salad, or use them in a chilled tea or sangria recipe . Use peaches for grilling in beef or chicken kabobs. For dessert, serve grilled peaches over ice cream or frozen yogurt drizzled with honey. You have limitless options with this common, but versatile, fruit.

Photo courtesy of Louisiana Cookin' Magazine

Photo courtesy of Louisiana Cookin’ Magazine

Peaches are low in calories, a good source of dietary fiber, vitamins A and C, and the mineral potassium. Peaches are very low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. One large raw peach (2 ¾” in diameter) provides 68 calories and 3 g of fiber, making it a filling, low-calorie snack.  Put another way, one large peach is calorically equal to 3 restaurant tortilla chips (not including dip or salsa) or 9 regular potato chips (I don’t know many people that stop at 9). The fiber content in a large peach exceeds that of one slice of many whole wheat breads.

There is more to the peach payoff than low calories and fiber. Vitamins A and C act as antioxidants in the body, helping to boost immunity, prevent heart disease and protect against cancer. Peaches also contain phytochemicals called carotenoids that promote healthy vision.

The average adult requires 1 ½ – 2 cups of fruit per day, according to the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines (which replaced the more familiar Food Pyramid in June of 2011). One cup of peaches equals “one large (2 ¾” diameter), 1 cup sliced or diced, raw, cooked, or canned, drained, or 2 halves, canned,” (1) according to the USDA’s MyPlate website.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

Recommendations from this Registered Dietitian (RD):

1)    Blossom with versatility. Stretch your creativity and incorporate new uses for peaches in your diet, both as a whole fruit and as an ingredient. Be sure to eat whole peaches unpeeled (as in smoothies) since most of the vitamin C content is contained beneath the skin. (But see #6 below for an important caveat.)

2)    The eyes have it. The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin in peaches help to protect eyes from macular degeneration, which is a major cause of blindness. It is especially important to add foods like peaches to your diet that contain these types of phytochemicals to help prevent eye diseases, particularly if you are at high risk for them.

3)    Go frigid for fertility. Frozen peach slices contain more vitamin C than fresh peaches and may result in higher sperm counts, due to the prevention of sperm agglutination (clumping).

4)    Run from the fuzz.  Named after the “nectar of the gods,” a nectarine is a peach that has naturally mutated to the point where trichomes are not produced by the skin, and fuzz does not grow.  Like regular peaches, nectarines are great baked or raw and you can easily substitute nectarines for peaches in most recipes if you prefer.

5)    Create a colorful plate. Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables at each meal: the more colorful the better. Including peaches (or nectarines) in salsa or salads can really make things festive. In 2011, the USDA replaced the well-known Food Pyramid with the more easily managed MyPlate. Serving size and food group needs vary by the individual, and you can determine your own needs by visiting the MyPlate site.

6)    Take a stand for organic. According to the Environmental Working Group, peaches are the fourth highest of pesticide-laden of fruits and vegetables, which means it makes sense in the case of peaches to splurge for organic. I encourage visits to farmers markets and local fruit/peach stands. To find a farmers market near you, visit the USDA website.

Even though summer is nearing its end, there is no reason you can’t toss in some juicy peaches and let those bursts of flavor and color extend the season, enjoying some health benefits along the way. And if you’re like me and choose to remain on Team Nectarine, I won’t have any problems with it whatsoever.

Citation:

1.    US Department of Agriculture. MyPlate: What Counts as a Cup of Fruit? Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/fruits-amount.html. Accessed August 11, 2012.

Photo by Gisele Perez

Gisele Perez’s Bread Pudding with Sauteed Peaches. Photo by Gisele Perez

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