Eat more fruits and vegetables. You hear it all the time — from nutritionists, and probably your mom too — yet many people still aren’t putting the advice into practice. Less than 10 percent of Americans meet the recommended dietary guidelines for fruit (1.5-2 cups daily) and vegetables (2-3 cups daily), according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 2015.
One way to squeeze in more? Opting for dried fruit, which lasts ages longer than fresh varieties and can be easier to find, pack, and snack on. But is dried fruit healthy? And how does it compare to the fresh versions? Here’s what dietitians have to say — you might be surprised.
Dried Fruit vs. Fresh Fruit
In its most basic form, dried fruit — common options include cranberries, cherries, apricots, and dates — is simply fresh fruit that’s been dried, either in the sun, in a dehydrator, or some other process. When you take out the water content of fresh fruits, the fruit naturally shrinks, so you’re left with something roughly a quarter of the size of the original version.
Is Dried Fruit Healthy?
Dried fruit can be a cost-effective way to meet your fruit requirements for the day and also a healthy alternative when fresh fruit is not available, says Lauren Manaker, M.S., R.D.N., L.D. To start, dried fruit is packed with nutrients, since it contains all the nutrition of fresh fruit but in a compact form. For example, one-fourth cup of raisins, which are made from grapes dried in the sun, contain about 6 percent of your daily value of potassium, says Manaker — the same amount you’d get from one cup of fresh grapes. (BTW, here are more foods loaded with potassium.)
While all fruits have some nutritional value, such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, some earn gold medals. Grapes (therefore, raisins), cherries, citrus fruits, and pomegranates are among these top-notch picks, says Danielle Gaffen, M.S., R.D.N. Fiber is one of the standout reasons to eat dried fruit. You’re getting all the powerful benefits of fiber from fresh fruit, but consolidated — meaning dried fruit is more nutritionally dense.
That essentially means you get more nutrients in a smaller form, which can be beneficial for those who struggle to eat enough fruits in their daily diet, but macronutrients and weight goals should be considered. If your goal is to increase your carbohydrates or potentially gain weight, fitting in healthful, nutrient-dense snacks such as dried fruit can help, says Gaffen. On the other hand, if you’re taking a closer look at calories or portion sizes, dried fruit isn’t the best choice, as fresh fruit in greater volume would be more satiating. (Related: Healthy Homemade Trail Mix Recipes)
In addition to the health benefits of dried fruit, the convenience factor is another reason to consider this compact version. “The shelf life [of dried fruit] is longer than fresh [fruit], and you don’t have to worry about [the fruit] bruising,” says Manaker. For example, a few dried Medjool dates topped with a schmear of peanut butter is a quick and delicious pre-workout snack you can grab in a hurry. Just make sure your dried fruit contains only dried fruit — you’ll want to check the ingredient list closely to ensure the downsides don’t outweigh the benefits.
When Dried Fruit Isn’t So Healthy
It’s a common assumption that dried fruit is loaded with sugar, but that’s not always the case. In fact, many brands of dried fruit products contain only fruit and nothing else. You want to look out for common sweeteners used in dried fruits — sucrose, glucose, glucose syrup, dextrose, and cane sugar, says Gaffen. The healthiest dried fruit varieties won’t contain any of these added sugars.
You should also beware of any dried fruit labeled “candied” or “crystallized” — it simply means sugar has been added. And those chocolate-covered dried fruits masquerading as healthy snacks? They’re basically candy with a fruit center — aka, not healthy in the least.
“Because dried fruit already has natural sugar, it should taste sweet enough without added sugars,” she adds.
And because dried fruit is also full of fiber (a fruit’s fiber content won’t change from its fresh to dried form, btw), it slows how quickly the natural sugar in fruit raises your blood sugar, so you can avoid the spike and subsequent crash, says Gaffen.
You will want to carefully monitor portion size when eating dried fruit, however, as its portability also makes it easy to mindlessly eat an entire baggie of dried cherries. Since they take up less room in your stomach than fresh fruit, you’ll likely eat more dried fruit to feel as full — and consume way more calories than you planned. (For example, 1 cup of grapes contains about 64 calories, while 1 cup of raisins has nearly 500 calories.) Remember, dried fruit is much more concentrated than its fresh counterpart. Gaffen puts it this way: Would you eat 10 fresh apricots? Probably not, but you could easily eat 10 dried apricots without really thinking about it. A good rule of thumb is to keep portion sizes of dried fruit to 1/4 cup, about the size of a golf ball, she says.
One surprising thing about dried fruit is that they’re sometimes, coated in sulfites to preserve their color — yep, those same pesky preservatives found in wine.
Though sulfites are generally considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA requires sulfites to be listed as an ingredient when present in any food, so a simple label check will reveal whether your bag contains any. Sulfate-free varieties may be less vibrant in colors, but they taste just as good, says Gaffen.
While it’s uncommon, people who are sensitive to sulfites, such as those with asthma, may experience side effects such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, skin rashes, or something more severe like anaphylaxis if consumed, says Gaffen.
For others, sulfates may simply cause bloating and stomach cramps — not dangerous, but certainly uncomfortable.
So, bottom line: Is dried fruit healthy or not? It really depends on your personal goals and health. If you’re not sensitive to sulfites and struggle to eat enough fresh fruit, a controlled portion of dried fruit can be a healthy snack. And dried fruits do count toward your total daily fruits recommendation, says Silvia Carli, R.D. with 1AND1 Life. Remember, though: Having fresh fruit also contributes to your daily hydration because of its natural water content, while dried fruit does not, says Carli. (Related: How to Deal with Stomach Pain and Gas — Because You Know That Uncomfortable Feeling)
How to Eat Dried Fruit
Here’s how you can incorporate dried fruit into a healthy eating plan.
Aside from tossing together a homemade trail mix, you can also add dried fruit to hot or cold cereals, baked goods, and salads. “It’s a satisfying and simple way to eat more fruit and get a dose of fiber and [nutrients] in a healthy way,” says Manaker. Trader Joe’s has a wide selection of no-sugar-added dried fruit, including some hard-to-find options such as peaches, says Gaffen.
If you’re buying more dried fruit than you plan to consume right away (remember, that long shelf life means you can buy in bulk), be sure to store it in an airtight non-metal container (if your fruit has sulfites, metal can cause it to change colors, says Gaffen) in a cool, dry place. You can even store it in the fridge.
Dried fruit can also be a perfect pre-workout meal, says Carli. Since it’s mainly carbohydrates, a handful of dried fruit will provide quick energy and will be easy to digest (just avoid prunes, as they can cause GI distress due to their extra-high-fiber content and sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, adds Carli).
Whether you’re eating fresh fruit or dried fruit, you’re working toward the same goal of eating more whole foods overall. As long as you’re avoiding varieties with added sugar (and sulfites, if you’re sensitive), and watching portion sizes, both types will give you the same nutritional benefits.