This week’s post is going to hurt me a little. As I begin to write it, I’m already hit by the sour-bitter-cringing anticipation that’s made my cheek and jaw muscles cramp with a sharp pain. My throat’s involuntarily contracted and my tear ducts are on standby. My saliva glands have kicked into overdrive and I have to swallow continuously in order not to drool a mess onto my keyboard. My shoulders have tensed up and I even feel my heart going a few beats faster.
Grapefruits (swallow, swallow, breathe). Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with them. In fact, as we’ll discuss in a bit, they’re actually very good for you. It’s me – I cramp easily on sour-citrus thoughts.
How did this wondrously jaw-aching fruit come to be? In the 18th century on the island-nation of Barbados in the Carribean, a Jamaican sweet orange was cross-bred with an Indonesian pomelo, thus producing the hybrid grapefruit. The name “grapefruit” derived from the way the fruit grew in clusters similar to how grapes grow.
Grapefruits vary from white to yellow and pink to red. In the past, some people considered the white variety inferior and today, it’s more common to find the yellow, pink and red ones. Taste-wise, grapefruits range from sour-bitter to mildly sweet. I’ve only once tasted a mildly sweet grapefruit. That was in New Zealand a couple of years ago and I was feeling brave that day. That particular grapefruit smelt like an orange. It tasted faintly sweet, at first. Then all I felt was the painful cramp in my cheeks and jaw that followed that first taste. When I finally opened my eyes and wiped away the tears, I saw everyone else enjoying their grapefruits with relish. So there it is: it’s just me.
Grapefruits are low in calories and are about 90% water. But they’re packed with fibre, electrolytes and nutrients such as vitamins A and C, lycopene and beta-carotene. Grapefruits also contain small amounts of vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, panthotenic acid, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, choline, zinc and copper.
Those who exercise a lot or train intensively may find grapefruit slices or juice a good supplement to water or isotonic drinks after a workout. With about 90% water content and packed with electrolytes, grapefruits are great for hydration or recovery from dehydration, and for replacing the electrolytes our body lose during strenuous and prolonged sessions of physical activity.
Athletes, and others who enjoy or need to spend a lot of time outdoors, will appreciate the benefits for their skin from regularly eating grapefruits. Grapefruits are rich in vitamin C which is not only a powerful antioxidant, it can also help against skin damage caused by sun and pollution, reduce wrinkles and improve general skin texture. This is because vitamin C plays an important role in collagen formation, which in turn is the main support system for our body’s largest organ – our skin. When collagen is combined with the hydrating-power and vitamin A in grapefruits, the result is a three-pronged approach towards healthy and good-looking skin. And, healthy collagen formation has an extra benefit – the maintenance of strong and healthy tendons and ligaments.
There’s a story about all the body’s parts arguing with each other over which part was the most important: the head thought it was, the eyes thought they were, and so on. The arguing went on relentlessly until one southerly part, which the others had ignored and disregarded, decided to clamp up to show the rest who was boss… That story wasn’t about grapefruits, but it did highlight an important area of everyday health and well-being. The high water and fibre content of grapefruits not only help prevent constipation, but also promote a healthy digestive tract and regular bowel movements. In that story, the other body parts very quickly learnt not to mess with the boss.
Medical research suggests that a grapefruit’s combination of fibre, potassium, lycopene (a bright red carotene and carotenoid pigment and phytochemical found in red fruits and vegetables), vitamin C and choline is beneficial for maintaining a healthy heart. Some studies have found that a diet supplemented with red grapefruit helps against atherosclerosis – the narrowing and hardening of arteries caused by plaque build-up around the artery wall – because it lowers blood lipid levels, in particular triglycerides (the fat in blood). Potassium can help in lowering blood pressure because of its vasodilation effect, and the nutrient is also associated with reducing the risks of kidney stones and stroke. In short, eating grapefruit regularly helps in maintaining good blood pressure and a healthy heart.
In fact, grapefruits are so nutrient-packed that eating half a grapefruit provides you with 64% and 28% of your daily vitamin C and A needs respectively. There’s even 2% each of daily calcium and magnesium requirements thrown in. Of the available hues of grapefruit, studies show that the pink and red varieties contain significantly higher antioxidant potential than white or yellow ones. And all that for only 52 calories with zero fat, sodium and cholesterol.
For all the goodness of grapefruits, there are a few areas for concern too. One is that because of the enzyme binding ability of grapefruits, they should not be eaten together with certain medications. These medications – like statin drugs, calcium channel blockers and psychiatric drugs – can interact with grapefruit and pass from one’s stomach into the bloodstream easier and faster than they normally would, potentially leading to reactions unintended by the prescription.
Another concern is for people with kidney conditions. If kidneys are not functioning fully and are unable to remove excess potassium from the blood, this could be dangerous to health and grapefruits would not be recommended because of their potassium content. Also, those who suffer from reflux and heartburn may generally want to avoid or consume less grapefruit because of its high acidity. When in doubt, it’s always best to consult a medical professional.
Otherwise, it’s easy to incorporate grapefruit as a regular feature in your diet. Start by having grapefruits handy and in sight, for example in an attractive fruit bowl on your kitchen counter. This increases the opportunity to see and reach for a grapefruit – or any other fruit in the bowl – instead of a packet of potato chips, which if kept on the top shelf in your cupboard should be much harder to get at.
Grapefruits are commonly eaten straight-up – cut a grapefruit in half and dig in with a spoon. While many people enjoy them this way at breakfast, there’s really no fixed time, and any time goes for eating grapefruits. To bring out the fruit’s sweetness more, try lightly sprinkling sea salt or rock salt onto the flesh of a freshly halved grapefruit and allow a few seconds for the chemical reactions to work their magic before eating.
You can also easily add small slices of grapefruit to fruit, vegetable or savoury salads whether for lunch, dinner or just as an anytime-something-to-eat. I’d also try adding grapefruit slices to the usual side garnish for steaks and meat dishes to balance the heavier meat texture with a lighter touch, and the animal-fat oiliness with a dose of palate-cleansing citrusness. And what about a “dessert salad” – put slices or chunks of grapefruit in a bowl and scoop in lots of your favourite ice cream or gelato. The tangy-sour-bitterness of the grapefruit will blend delightfully with the ice cream’s or gelato’s rich-creamy sweetness for a refreshing and delicious treat. Throw in a generous handful of your favourite kind of chopped nuts or trail-mix for added crunch and flavour.
Grapefruits are harvested at their peak ripeness because once picked they don’t ripen or improve further. So generally, grapefruits are ready to be cut and eaten when bought. Still, it’s useful to know how to choose a good one when you’re at the supermarket or grocers.
Look at the peel for a bright yellow to orangey-red colour. The deeper the colour, the more intense the flavour. Small blemishes on the peel, likely from rubbing against other fruit, are fine.
Look for a symmetrical slightly oval shape, and feel for an overall smooth skin. Small bumps and pores, which are typical of citrus fruits, are ok. Avoid odd shaped or lumpy grapefruits as this could be tell-tale signs that they were harvested too late and may be over-ripe.
Choose a plump-looking grapefruit and hold it in your hand. A ripe grapefruit will feel heavier than it looks, which also tells you it’s juicy inside. Give it a gentle squeeze. Your fingers should sink into its peel slightly, and when you release pressure the peel should bounce back to its normal shape quickly. The grapefruit should be firm all around, so avoid choosing those with soft spots which would indicate that they’re damaged or going bad soon.
Once home, you can leave the grapefruits in your fruit bowl at room temperature for five to seven days, but make sure to keep them away from direct sunlight. Don’t leave them in plastic bags, instead let them out to breathe and for the peel to stay dry. If you put them in the fridge, they’ll keep for about three weeks.
Well, my cheeks and jaw are still aching, but as the saying goes: No pain; No gain – I’m digging in! Gulp!