Most of us associate citrus fruit with vitamin C and refreshing drinks – but there is more to it than that.
All citrus species originate from Asia and because of their popularity, people began importing and cultivating them in many parts of the world as early as 300BC. The trio of citruses most modern species resulted from are mandarins, citrons (the original lemons) and, perhaps surprisingly, pomelos. The fruits we all love and enjoy, such as oranges, limes, lemons, grapefruits and satsumas, are hybrids of the ‘original trio’.
The colour of the fruit ranges from green, through yellow to orange and even red but if you travel to tropical or subtropical countries you’ll see that many citrus fruits there are often green – that doesn’t mean they’re not ripe! Citrus fruits change colour in climates with a cooler winter but in countries that don’t get cold, they remain green.
C for citrus
Vitamin C is important for the body’s ability to heal and repair tissues, it’s essential for healthy bones and teeth, protects our DNA from damage and helps us absorb iron from our diet. Most citrus fruits contain more than your daily dose – 40 mg – in one piece, with the exception of the little oranges group – satsumas, easy peelers, mandarins, tangerines – you need two of these to cover your vitamin C needs.
Vitamin C per piece (our daily need is 40mg)
Citruses are also rich in potassium – the mineral we need to maintain healthy blood pressure, balance fluids in our bodies, transmit nerve signals and protect our kidneys. To get the maximum benefit, you’ll need fresh fruit or freshly squeezed juice.
Orange juice is the most popular juice in the world but is it good for you? It depends entirely on how it was produced and how much of it you drink.
Freshly squeezed juice is a fairly healthy option as it contains vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and some beneficial compounds such as flavonoids. However, it has very little fibre so your body digests it much faster than the whole fruit – which is always the best option. If you have one glass of fresh juice, it’s a good vitamin booster but there’s no benefit to having more than that.
When it comes to juice that’s not fresh – stuff you buy in ‘normal’ shops – it can be either from concentrate or not but it’s almost always pasteurised. That means the juice is exposed to high heat which kills off any potentially harmful microbes but it also kills much of the goodness in the juice. It will retain some of its vitamin C but that’s about it and there isn’t much else left aside from some sugar. All the juices sold in cartons have undergone pasteurisation, many are made from concentrate and also sweetened – and frankly, they aren’t worth your money.
Drinking lemon water as the first thing in the morning has become very popular but is it a habit worth fostering? Maybe but it’s no miracle cure. Adding the juice of half a lemon into a glass of cold or warm (not boiling to preserve nutrients) water and drinking it on waking has several small benefits. You get a vitamin C boost which can help your immune system and improve your skin health – but eating an orange has the same effect. You also get a dose of citric acid which helps prevent kidney stones – but so does adding lime juice to your afternoon smoothie.
As for the claims about waking up the digestive system and having an alkalising effect, well, there isn’t much science to support that. Of course, drinking lemon water is better for your stomach than a cup of coffee so from that point of view, it’s a winner! It’s true that lemons, despite being acidic, have a mild alkalising effect on your body but it’s only small and you don’t really need it in the morning when your body fluids are well balanced.
The take home message? Lemon water is a healthy drink but some of its benefits have been greatly exaggerated.
When it comes to making lemon water, it may be tempting to use lemon concentrate as it’s a convenient option but nothing can beat fresh lemon juice. Fresh is always best!
So how about lemonade? Lemonade means sugar and that’s not ideal. The less sugar you add, the better. You can try natural sweeteners instead, for example stevia or simply enjoy lemonade as a treat rather than your go-to option.
Blood oranges and pink grapefruits
Any citrus fruit is excellent for your health but if it has red or pink flesh, it means it contains an extra dose of antioxidant and health-protective compounds. Anthocyanins in blood oranges and carotenoids in pink grapefruits are responsible for the bright colours but their secret power is in protecting your cells and DNA against damage. Studies show they also have some cancer-fighting properties and so can help protect your health in the long-term, too.
Most conventionally produced citrus fruit is waxed – that means it has a very thin layer of wax applied on the surface to help prolong its shelf life and make it look pretty. There are many waxing mixtures and they usually contain some edible wax of plant or insect origin but can also contain petroleum-based wax. This throws up a number of issues – there’s no way of knowing what kind of wax was used on the fruit so it may not be vegan or it may not be very good for you. The solution is to buy unwaxed or organic whenever possible. While not all unwaxed fruit is organic, all organic fruit is unwaxed.
If you want to use orange or lemon zest in cooking, it’s best to choose organic fruit – not only because it isn’t waxed but also because organic growers don’t use harmful pesticides. Non-organic citrus fruits accumulate some of these chemicals in the peel and you certainly don’t need any in your food.
All citrus fruit contains citric acid which is not exactly wonderful for your teeth as it can slightly erode enamel (the top layer of your teeth) but it’s not a reason to avoid these nutritious fruits. Remember to always rinse your mouth with water after eating citrus fruit or drinking lemon water. Rinsing your mouth thoroughly will help protect your teeth better than brushing them in this particular scenario – brushing the teeth after they’ve been exposed to citric acid may contribute to enamel erosion so stick with plain old water and you’ll be fine.
PS Do brush your teeth – just not straight after eating an orange!