Who needs them?
What's the big deal about fruits and vegetables? Even if they taste great or look gorgeous, are they meant to be taken seriously? Why were fruits and vegetables put on this planet, anyway? Well, THEY probably think they're here to have fun and to make more fruits and vegetables, but we humans are convinced that they must be here for our own benefits. So, let's look at the unique things which they alone among all foods do for us.
Fruits and vegetables are the only foods which, like our bodies, are comprised mostly of water! They assist us in meeting our cells' daily fluid needs, and in "flushing" the digestive system. When predominantly dry foods are eaten, the body must contribute water from its fluid reserves merely to carry on the chemical breakdown of food proteins. The body must contribute much greater amounts of water to get the whole mass of digesting food into a liquid enough state to be handled at all.
Dried foods basically have a "dehydrating" effect on the body (increasing the need to drink fluids separately), while fruits and vegetables have a water-sparing or "rehydrating" effect. This is a critical issue in parts of the world where fruits and vegetables are the only uncontaminated water source!
Their water content offers some direct nutritional benefits, too: They may be called the finest sources of fiber and undigestible carbohydrate simply because they offer the necessary water without which fiber won't do any good. Eating dried prunes and bran-containing whole-grain foods in a dry state within an overall-dry meal will, by comparison, do much less for the colon's health, but will definitely arouse quite a thirst.
The phrase "nutrient-dense" may conjure images of dry, heavy foods like nuts, dried fruits, and powdered concentrates manufactured from who-knows-what. However, what it actually means is "containing large amounts of nutrients per calorie." Here again, fruits and vegetables are nature's unique representatives.
One hundred calories' worth of mixed fruits and vegetables will certainly offer much greater vitamin and mineral content than 100 calories' worth of any other class of food; calories we take in from fruits and vegetables are attached to what's really the most nutritious part of our whole diet.
For various nutrients such as iron, we find that 30 or 40 individual foods providing the most of that nutrient per calorie are ALL fruits or vegetables (a few dried sea vegetables are included.) A calcium chart would list many vegetables that contain more calcium per calorie than the highest-listed animal product, despite long-standing myths touting dairy products as ideal calcium sources. (We will publish a chart next year -- Ed.)
First known only as a scurvy-preventive substance, ascorbic acid has amassed quite a reputation over the last two generations:
• as vitamin C, one of the first essential vitamins ever identified;
• as a nutrient helpful in times of acute or threatened infection;
• as a promoter of increased iron absorption from meals in which it is included;
• as one of the very few nutrients authoritatively credited with cancer-preventive effects;
• as an anti-oxidant nutrient helpful in avoiding free-radical formation;
• and as a chelating agent somewhat useful in drawing heavy metal contamination out of the body.
All of nature's foods containing vitamin C are fruits and vegetables. (Some, like dark leafy greens and cabbage-family vegetables, have much more than others.)
Carotenoids sound like invaders from another galaxy, but are actually the family of plant pigments which includes beta-carotene. They are vitamin-A complexes from plants that give carrots and winter squashes their orange-to-deep-yellow coloring inside.
They, like vitamin C, are anti-oxidants and among the few nutrients confirmed as cancer-preventive agents.
Once again, they are only found in fruits and vegetables, though not in all. Examples also include dark leafy greens, red and yellow peppers, dark-flesh rutabagas, apricots, peaches, broccoli, green beans, sugar snap peas and various tropical fruits.
Virtually all foods whose overall mineral content results in an alkaline residue (i.e. where calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc are most prominent) are fruits and vegetables. Most other foods yield an acid ash (i.e. where phosphorus, sulfur, silicon, boron are most prominent), while some are closer to neutral. Addition of sodium chloride salt doesn't change the underlying acid/alkaline character. Fruits and vegetables are thus very important in maintaining certain balances in our mineral metabolism.
Diets which are heavily acid-ash dominant can result in excessive excretion of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Particularly, the acid-ash influence of large amounts of meat and animal-products seems to be one major factor causing increased calcium loss in the urine, thus increased daily needs for calcium and increased risk of osteoporosis.
There we have the contributions made uniquely by fruits and vegetables. Yet, much more can be said, for instance:
• They are the predominant sources of nutrients known to be preventive against cancer development.
• They commonly play a key role in therapeutic diets designed to combat degenerative disease.
• Nearly all of them contain more than enough protein per calorie to meet the overall protein recommendations for human diets.
• They include foods which are the best calcium sources, by all measures which matter (calcium per unit of protein, per unit of animal protein, per unit of phosphorus, and per calorie);
• For most nutrients, specific fruits and vegetables are the foods which would yield the most of that nutrient PER ACRE of production.
There's plenty of evidence for the opinion I've held since I was 18: Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most important foods any one of us ever eat.