Tu Bishvat arrives next week and Israelis have been stocking up, buying dried fruit by the ton in advance. Alongside the traditional offerings - dates, apricots and raisins - shoppers can find exotic tropical dried fruits, from green slices of kiwi to orange mango and papaya and yellow-to-brown pineapple, tempting passersby at kiosks and market stalls, and piled up in a rainbow of colors to buy by weight at health-food stores.
Marketing company Leiman Schlussel estimates that consumption of dried fruit increases by 30% in the month of Tu Bishvat compared with other months of the year. The company also estimates that 90% of the dried fruit changing hands is the traditional sort, not the exotic offerings.
The market as a whole turns over some NIS 2 billion a year, according to estimates by the organic (and other foods ) chain Eden Teva Market.
Aside from being loved as a traditional Tu Bishvat holiday treat, dried fruit is widely considered to be a healthy snack. There is truth in that adage, but it needs qualifying.
"It is true that dried fruit contains essential vitamins and minerals," says Einat Mazor, a dietitian with Clalit Health Services. "For instance, they contain calcium, iron and potassium, and also have a high component of fiber, which is beneficial for digestion. But they also have a high sugar and caloric count," Mazor notes. "The sugar gets highly concentrated because the liquid in the fruits is taken out, which automatically increases the concentration of the carbohydrates. The calorie count of dried fruit is four to five times that of the fresh fruit," she concludes.
Also, industrial dehydration processes involve both heat and chemicals, which change the nutritional value of the fruit, Mazor says. Weight watchers or diabetics need to watch out, she warns.
"People tend to gorge on dried fruit," says dietitian Michal Sukman, from the Maccabi health service fund. "They're shrunken down. But just two pieces is equivalent to a serving of fruit. They're more like a candy. They're a better candy than chocolate, but more candy than fruit."
So which dried fruit are better for you, and which have little nutritional value? We selected a range of packages made by different companies and gave our two consulting dietitians their nutritional values and ingredients, without divulging the product names or manufacturers.
Sukman and Mazor helped narrow down ways to choose the best dried fruit for the holiday.
Choose the ones with the least additives
"Inspect the list of ingredients," says Mazor. You're looking for additives and preservatives. Large amounts of these can cause side effects, she says.
For instance, take sulfite - also known as sulfur dioxide - which was present in most of the dried fruits we checked.
Sulfite is a preservative and antioxidant, which means it helps keep the dried fruit fresh, as it were (in other words, it extends the product's shelf life ). It is safe for most people. But a small percentage of the population is allergic and may develop hives or labored breathing. Some people develop diarrhea or nausea. (Sulfite is also common in wine. )
Allergic reactions aside, no damage, immediate or long term, has been associated with the consumption of sulfites. It's more a question of people choosing whether or not to consume the chemical, and if they don't want to, organic is the solution, suggests Sukman.
Another commonly found substance is oil or wax, to make the dried fruit shiny. It seems to cause no harm, but on the other hand many dried fruits have artificial food coloring. Take dried papaya, also known as pawpaw, which contains tartrazine.
Tartrazine, also known as E102, is a synthetic lemon-yellow azo dye. It is found in a wide range of processed foods and cosmetics and again, a certain percentage of the population is sensitive and may develop an allergic reaction.
Leave out the added sugar
Some of the dried fruits we checked, such as pineapple, banana and papaya, had added sugar. Also, the dates produced by Hamama had glucose in the list of ingredients.
"Dried pineapple or papaya are more sugar than fruit. Even without added sugar, the carbohydrate load in these products is heavy to begin with," says Sukman. "Even if the product doesn't say it's sugared, just dried, check the list of ingredients. Choose the ones that don't have added sugar."
That isn't always easy, Mazor points out. For instance, in the case of Tznobar's dried figs, the table of components cites "sugars." But it isn't clear whether that is confined to the natural sugar in the fruit, or if more has been added.
In some cases we checked, the calorie and carbohydrate count indicates that sugar has been added, but the list of ingredients does not say so specifically. This was especially true of the organic products, which mostly did not have lists of ingredients on the packaging at all.
Organic products promise to be free of chemicals, and are therefore considered healthier. However, Sukman and Mazor were surprised to find that in some cases, they were even more fattening than the nonorganic kind. Dried organic apricots, raisins and dates proved to have higher calorie, fat and carbohydrate counts than their regular brethren.
Maybe it's the method by which organic fruit are dried, Sukman speculates. Or maybe sugar was added: the consumer can't know because there is no list of ingredients.
Avoid added fats
In two cases we encountered addition of fats: organic raisins made by Adama, and Super-Sol's dried banana chips.
"There's no reason to add fat to dried fruit," says Sukman. "It was apparently added to the raisins to make them shinier ... but it isn't healthy."
Organic dried apricots were found to have a high fat content: 6 grams compared with 0.5 grams in nonorganic apricots. That could indicate fat has been added. But again, it's impossible to know since the organic version did not have a list of ingredients.
Dried bananas have added palm oil, which is considered relatively unhealthy. Palm oil is natural, but it's still saturated: the less eaten the better, says Sukman.
Tvuot, a maker of organic foods, commented that it only sells organic dried fruits with no added sugar or other additives. There were mistakes in the nutritional counts on the packaging, the company added - in one case, the carbohydrate count was given as 82 instead of 62, and as for the "six grams" of fat, a zero had been left out: the number was 0.6 grams. It would take action to correct the nutritional counts, Tvuot said.
Zorganica, whose organic products are marketed by Adama, commented that the dates it sells are organic and have no additives, which is why there is no list of ingredients. The nutritional value of dates depends on their degree of dehydration, the type of earth in which they were grown and the climate, Zorganica said. Its raisins have organic vegetable fat to prevent them from clumping, the company added.
Super-Sol commented that its product is a snack imported from the Philippines, not a dried fruit per se, and as such, it underwent processing that included frying. However, the company noted that the palm oil will soon be replaced by coconut oil.
Kliyat Yossi said it complies with the directives of the Health Ministry, according to which tartrazine and sunset yellow food dye are permissible for use in sugared fruits.
It's cheaper to buy by weight
Where are dried fruits cheapest?
We checked both packaged fruits and fruits by weight at Super-Sol Deal, Mega Bool, and the big health-food chains Eden Teva Market and Nitzat Haduvdevan.
The answer was clear: buying by weight is significantly cheaper than the packaged goods.
Take apricots, for instance. We found price discrepancies of 100% to 150% between buying by weight at Nitzat Haduvdevan compared with Mega or Tznobar packages, which means the packaged apricots can cost more than twice as much.
In the case of dates, the difference between buying by weight at Mega Bool, Super-Sol or Eden Teva Market and buying by package averaged 40%.
When the components of the dried fruit are not clear, try to go organic, or to select ones that state they have no added sugar, suggest Michal Sukman and Einat Mazor. The organic products almost certainly have no preservatives, they say.
When we looked at the dried fruits without added sugar, compared with the ones that do have it, again we found big price differences.
Pineapple without added sugar sold by weight at Eden Teva Market cost 200% more than pineapple with sugar sold by weight at the same store. The difference at Nitzat Haduvdevan was 150% and at Mega Bool, it was 70%.
Health, it would seem, costs money.
Note that the gaps in price between organic and nonorganic were nothing like as large, if they existed at all.