What is that green stuff taking up all that room on your plate?

Fruits and Vegetables(43870)Credit: blog.foodfacts.com

You know, the stuff that’s supposed to be so good for you but it’s crowding out the really good things like a big, fat juicy steak and that great pasta covered with a rich creamy sauce.  Oh yeah, it’s called a vegetable!  And then there’s that sweet tasting food that we pick from a tree on a nice summer day called fruit. 

Typically most of us don’t partake of more than just a dozen of the most common fruits and vegetables and we really aren’t willing to try more than that.  We know these good things come from a field, garden or orchard and that’s about it. 

There are so many more choices for those who are willing to be a little bit adventurous.  What is a fruit and what is a vegetable?

By definition a fruit is the part of any plant that carries seeds.  A vegetable can come from anything else on the plant such as:

  • The leaves - lettuce and spinach
  • The stems – asparagus
  • The flower buds - broccoli and cauliflower
  • The seeds - peas and corn
  • The bulbs - onions and garlic
  • The tubers – potatoes
  • The roots – carrots or beets

There are a few other foods that are typically grouped with vegetables but are technically fruits:

  • Tomatoes
  • Avocados
  • Eggplants
  • Squashes

If you cut into any of these “vegetables” you will find seeds and that is why they are classified as a fruit.  Also, if you want to get even more technical, nuts and wheat grains also qualify as fruits.  Horticulturists finally decided that in order to call a seed-bearing structure a fruit it must have fleshy tissue (which rules out nuts) and come from a perennial, which is a plant that lives at least two years without needing to be replanted.  So because an apple or orange tree gives multiple crops they would fall into this category, but because tomatoes must be planted every year they wouldn’t.  There is an exception for watermelon, which we classify as a fruit, but the vines must be planted every year.  Right now some agricultural experimentation is being focused on converting annuals into perennials.

Even though potatoes are considered a vegetable, they are not typically counted when eating five to nine servings of fruits or vegetables per day because of they consist almost entirely of starch and are far more similar to grains.

So, what is considered a serving of fruit or vegetable?  Many people try to eat enough fruits and vegetables each day.  The old Food Guide Pyramid recommended five to nine servings, which is a good number to eat each day.  The new Food Guide Pyramid guidelines now recommend specific amounts to eat such as cups or ounces.  It is hard to try to change the thinking on this and so what really constitutes a serving?  Here is the list of what a “serving” of fruits and vegetables are:

  • Six ounces, which is three-quarters of a cup, of fruit or vegetable juice
  • One medium-sized whole fruit such as an orange, apple or banana
  • One-quarter cup of dried fruit
  • One-half cup of raw, frozen, or cooked vegetables or fruit (sliced or chopped)
  • One cup of raw leafy vegetables.  A large green salad my contain about three cups of greens and so would count as three servings

These amounts are the most typical portion sizes that have been determined by surveys of food consumption that have been carried out by the USDA meaning that these are the amounts that people will typically eat. 

Try an experiment and get out your measuring cups and see how much you actually serve or eat and then compare your serving sizes to the list here.  Quite often a helping that we typically serve ourselves may be twice the size of the recommended serving size.  This might help you gauge your daily intake when you consider the portion sizes that are recommended.

Some foods are easier to measure than others.  Foods that you chop or slice up into smaller pieces will fit into your measuring cups much easier than large broccoli spears or carrot and celery sticks.  Here is what makes up a serving for a few of the odd-sized items:

  • Asparagus: six medium spears
  • Broccoli: two spears
  • Brussels sprouts: four sprouts
  • Carrots: one medium sized or eight baby sized carrots
  • Celery: two medium stalks
  • Dates (dried): five dates
  • Grapefruit: half of a medium grapefruit
  • Strawberries: seven medium sized berries

For smaller children, portion sizes will be smaller of course.  Two and three year olds, for example, will consume about half of the serving size that is considered an appropriate serving size for an adult. 

Remember to use caution with fruit juice consumption in kids.  Fruit juices, no matter how nutritious they might be, often contain more sugar and calories than the fruit itself and little if any fiber. 

The fresher the fruits and vegetables, the better.  Most consumers do not have easy access to good fresh fruit and vegetables and are missing out on taste and nutrition by eating only frozen or canned produce.  Here are some suggestions to help you get the most nutrition from your produce:

  • Grow your own if possible.  Consider planting a garden, even a small garden will yield a good quantity of vegetables for a family.  A fruit tree or two won’t take up much room in the yard either.
  • Purchase from a farmer’s market or fresh fruit and vegetable stands.  The produce will be nice and fresh and you might be tempted to try some new and different products.
  • Eating your fruits and vegetables raw is the best way to get the most nutrition but not always the most desirable way to eat them.  One exception is tomatoes where the availability of lycopene is enhanced when they have been cooked.
  • When you cook vegetables it is best to steam, microwave, bake, or stir-fry them to preserve the nutrients.  If you must cook them in water, save the water for soups or sauces.
  • Frozen fruits or vegetables are a close second to fresh produce in nutrients and flavor.  Canned products sacrifice much of the flavor and texture and usually a lot of salt and sugar is added to the canning process.

Ultimately the best forms of fruits and vegetables are those that you and your family will actually want to eat.