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Fancy fruits add some fun to your family’s diet

"Today" food editor Phil Lempert offers hints on how you can use the exotic fruit invasion to boost the health of your whole family.
/ Source: TODAY

Forget plain old oranges and bananas, you'll have a lot more fun getting healthy by eating exotic fruits. On NBC's "Today" show, food editor Phil Lempert was invited to share some of his tips on the best exotic fruits on the market. Here he offers some healthy hints to help you add some flavor and fun to your family's diet:

One of the most powerful "marketing weapons" that a supermarket has over us is their produce department. Usually placed just as we walk in, it is the experience that surrounds us with colors and aromas that gets us ready for a more pleasurable shopping experience. But what you may not realize is that it could also set the stage for a healthier experience as well.

Today the average American adult is consuming just over three servings of fruits and vegetables a day — that is an increase of about 25 percent since 1991. (In fact, one of the ironies is that it is estimated that one third of vegetable consumption comes from French fries, potato chips, and iceberg lettuce.) The goal, however, is to consume at least five servings a day. Many nutritionists believe that that's conservative and urge people to up their daily servings to nine.

Consumption of fruits and vegetables offers multiple health benefits including lower risk for many cancers, diabetes, stroke, macular degeneration, osteoporosis and heart disease.

ACNielsen conducted a national survey recently showing that roughly 11 million Americans have dropped fruit from their diet as a result of low carb dieting; and that’s not good for our long term health.

Today, as more exotic and tasty fruits line the produce department shelves, it’s a great opportunity to add lots of flavor and health to your family’s diet.

In fact here’s a tip that can make a big difference: Getting kids to behave in the supermarket and eat their fruits and vegetables can be frustrating for parents. So, put your kids in charge of the fruit! Let them select one new fruit each shopping trip and be responsible for its preparation and telling the rest of the family about the fruit. Where it comes from, the nutritional value and its history. It's a fun way to keep them focused while you are shopping and get them eating and shopping healthy at an early age.

So what’s exciting in the fruit department?

Passion fruit
A pleasant surprise lies inside the wrinkled, dimpled, unusual passion fruit. The aromatic, jelly-like golden flesh of this tropical fruit is sweet-tart in flavor and filled with soft edible seeds.  Passion Fruit is egg-shaped and has a thick, hard shell that is deeply wrinkled when ripe.  Contrary to popular belief, passion fruit is named for the bloom of the passion fruit flower and not because of passionate powers it was once believed to contain. Passion fruit is generally used fresh but may be cooked for use in sauces and fillings. Simply halve fruit and scoop the pulp and seeds with a spoon.

Selection and storage:Choose fragrant, shriveled, wrinkled fruit that is rich in color. If skin is smooth, ripen at room temperature and turn occasionally. Fruit may then be refrigerated in a plastic bag up to a few days or frozen for longer storage without any loss of quality.

Nutritional information:It's low in calories (16 calories per fruit) with small amounts of vitamins A and C.                         

Dragon Fruit
Originally from Central America, dragon fruit is now grown domestically and is actually a species of cactus. Its shape is round/oblong and it is pink to vibrant red. Dragon fruit interior ranges from a pale pink to a magenta flesh with tiny black edible seeds. The dragon fruit has a mild fragrance and tastes very simple, yet sweet. It's perfect as a snack, in cooking or as a juice.

Selection and storage:Choose fruit soft to the touch and very rich in fragrance. Refrigerate.

Nutritional information:It's a good source of vitamin C and water-soluble fiber.

Lychee
The lychee is a juicy and sweet subtropical fruit native to China. Lychees grow on an evergreen tree in bunches like strawberries. They are one to two inches in diameter and covered in a thin shell. The tough bumpy skin varies from reddish-pink to brown in color, and is cracked open below the stem to reveal its grape-like interior. Peel off the leathery skin to extract the fruit and remove the seed. The rosy flavor of the lychee resembles the strawberry and muscat grape. Its fragrant perfume characterizes this unique fruit. The lychee can be eaten by itself or in salads, with vegetables and in sauces. They should not be peeled until just before they are served. Remove peel and black seed. Sometimes the seed is used in cooking, such as tea. When using lychee in cooking, add at the last minute for fragrant flavor.

Selection and storage:Pick lychees more reddish-pink in color, brown shells are ok to eat as well. To delay color change from red to brown and to avoid moisture loss, store lychees wrapped in a paper towel and in a perforated plastic bag. Refrigerate.

Nutritional information:They're a good source of potassium, excellent source of vitamin C and low in calories.

Rambutan
A cousin to the lychee, the rambutan is very unusual looking with its hairy appearance. It gets its name from the Malaysian word for hair, "rambut." It has a juicy-sweet texture and an enjoyable flavor similar to a lychee, but less acidic.Peel off the hairy skin to extract to fruit and remove the seed. The rambutan can be eaten by itself or in salads, with vegetables, and in sauces. They should not be peeled until just before they are served. Remove peel and black seed. Sometimes the seed is used in cooking, such as tea.  When using lychees in cooking, add at last minute for fragrant flavor.

Selection and storage: Pick rambutans that are brownish in color. To avoid moisture loss, store rambutans wrapped in a paper towel and in a perforated plastic bag. Refrigerate.

Nutritional information:
It's a good source of potassium, excellent source of vitamin C and low in calories.

Budda's hand
This is the oddest looking member of the citrus family, with fingerlike projections that vary between five to as many as 20. This citron is not eaten fresh, and should just be used to flavor cocktails, or placed in a bowl to freshen a room. The flesh is not juicy, and has a thick rind.

Selection and storage:Select fruit that is unblemished and keep at room temperature for up to two weeks.

Durian
The Durian is native to the Malay Archipelago and is grown on very tall trees that are up to 135 feet tall. When ripe, they give off a very distinct and strong odor. They are as large as a basketball and can weigh up to 11 pounds. They have a thorny green-brown skin and are creamy yellow on the inside. Eat fresh, add to yogurt, ice cream or cook into a jam. Its pulp is a great addition to cakes, cookies or other baked goods.

Selection and storage:Select pods with a yellowish, undamaged rind. Consume immediately or refrigerate up to five days. Wear gloves when handling.

Nutritional information:
The durian is very high in Vitamin C.

Donut peach
A descendant of the Chinese flat peento peach, it has a yellow skin with red blush and white flesh. It’s called the “donut peach” as it is flat, round and drawn in at the center. It has a sweet and juicy peach flavor with a hint of almond. There is a center seed (or stone) about the size of a pistachio nut.

Selection and storage:Select fruit that is free from brown spots or bruises. Keep at room temperature until soft to the touch, then refrigerate for up to three days.

Nutritional information:Donut peaches are a good source of fiber, vitamin A and vitamin C.

South African baby pineapple
South Africa is noted for these baby pineapples, also known as Queen Victoria, because they thrive in hot and humid climates. This sweet and tart baby pineapple has a bold, rich flavor. It has a clean, golden skin and brilliant yellow flesh color. South African baby pineapple flesh is entirely edible, with no need to core. Cut the pineapple in quarters from top to bottom leaving the crown on. No need to cut out the mid-section of the pineapple, for there is no core. These pineapples are low in acid and delicious fresh out of hand or added to fruit salads.

Selection and storage: Look for fruit with bright coloring and deep green leaves. Avoid pineapples with brown or soft spots and dry brown leaves. Keep in refrigeration for up to 10 days.

Nutritional information:The South African baby pineapple is rich in vitamin C.

Sweet young coconut
The sweet young coconut’s milk is delicious in curries and soups. Its sweet flesh is also wonderful right out of the hand as well as in fruit salads and custards. The sweet young coconut lacks the husk of its well-known version, which makes it easier to enjoy at any time.  Mix together coconut flesh and water, and then strain for a refreshingly sweet liquid. The milk is wonderful added to tropical drinks and many recipes needing extra flavor, or by itself for a thirst quenching treat. The flesh can be eaten as a snack.

Selection and storage:These fruits have a two week shelf life in refrigeration.

Nutritional information:They're high in fat, but cholesterol free and a good source of protein.

Coquito nuts
These are “baby coconuts” that do not contain milk and actually grown on a 50-year-old Chilean palm tree. These are shelled, about the size of a marble with an open center. They have a coconut flavor with almond overtones. Eat them right from the package, or grind them in a blender to use like chopped nuts over fish, poultry or desserts.

Selection and storage:They have a two-week shelf life in refrigeration.

Nutritional information:They're high in fat, but cholesterol free and a good source of protein.

One argument often cited for consumers not eating enough fruits and vegetables is that they are too expensive, especially when purchased fresh and especially when they go bad before you can consume them. To prove just that point, a survey we conducted on SupermarketGuru.com last month reported that 69 percent of our consumer panel said that their fruits and vegetables “goes bad or spoils” before they can consume them; and that is the number one reason deterring them from eating more.

The USDA is out to prove that fresh fruits and vegetables aren't always more costly than their processed counterparts. In fact, in a report released last week, using ACNielsen Homescan data on 1999 household food purchases, the USDA says that Americans can meet the recommendations of three servings of fruits and four servings of vegetables daily for just 64 cents.

Fruit 101

A serving is…

  • one medium-sized fruit
  • 1/2 cup of raw, cooked, canned or frozen fruits or vegetables
  • 3/4 cup (6 oz.) of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice
  • 1/2 cup cut-up fruit
  • 1/4 cup dried fruit

How do you know when it is ripe?
It is one of the most asked questions, especially since fruits are more nutritious at their peak. Here are my hints for the most popular fruits:

Fruits that continue to ripen after picking: Apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew, kiwifruits, nectarines, papaya, peaches, pears, plantains, plums and tomatoes

Fruits that DO NOT ripen after picking: Apples, berries, cherries, grapefruit, grapes, lemons, limes, oranges, pineapple, strawberries, tangerines and watermelon

I'm sure it's not a surprise for you to hear that it wasn't too long ago that supermarkets stocked just about 40 produce items. Today most supermarkets offer close to 400, going well beyond apples, peaches and potatoes to include an array of healthy, colorful, flavorful and more exotic varieties. So on your next trip, be sure to ask your produce manager for a taste of some of these more unusual fruits, and be prepared to have a tasty surprise!

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to