The strangest thing happened to a friend of mine, a vegetarian, the epitome of good health. A few months ago, she began dropping things and knocking into furniture. She complained about feeling exhausted and confused. A busy woman, she chalked it up to stress. But finally, she saw a doctor. The diagnosis? She was anemic.
Promptly, she began incorporating more iron-rich foods into her diet. To supplement her iron intake, I suggested she also tuck some small boxes of raisins into her purse.
Raisins contain more iron than many other types of fruits. While they don’t hold an iron candlestick to meat, shellfish or spinach, they do provide some: a small box delivers about 5 percent of our daily needs.
A vital nutrient we can’t live without, iron is essential for making red blood cells and transporting oxygen throughout the body. It also supports our immune system and brain function, and helps maintain healthy skin, hair, and nails. You might be surprised to learn that low iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in the U.S.
Raisins contain “non-heme” iron, the type found in plants that requires multiple steps to absorb it. Since vitamin C nearly doubles the absorption of non-heme iron, it’s a good idea to eat raisins with other vitamin C-rich foods.
Many athletes consume raisins for the rapid energy they provide. One small box of raisins (1.5 ounces) provides 130 calories, 34 grams of carbs and 26 grams of sugar. According to several studies, raisins provide the same performance-enhancing benefits as Sports Chews or Sports Jelly Beans — and for a whole lot less money.
Because raisins are dried grapes, it’s natural to wonder how the health benefits of raisins compare to grapes. While both are antioxidant superstars, raisin’s star shines about three times brighter, since the drying process concentrates many of these compounds. On the downside, however, raisins contain less vitamin C and resveratrol (a polyphenol that may benefit hearts) than grapes, since this same drying process compromises them.
Low in fat, sodium and cholesterol, raisins are also a good source of potassium (helps maintain a healthy heart) and fiber (promotes regularity; ferries cholesterol and other toxins out; fills us up).
Lastly, sweet and sticky raisins may help fight — not cause — cavities. According to researchers at the USA Department of Food and Nutrition, raisins contain chemicals that suppress the growth of oral bacteria associated with cavities and gum disease.
Toasted Couscous with Almonds and Raisins
Adapted from calraisins.org; serves 6-8
1 1/2 cup couscous
1/2 cup slivered almonds
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 stalks celery, diced
1 clove garlic, minced (or, ½ teaspoon garlic powder)
½ teaspoon cumin
pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup raisins
2 teaspoons lemon zest, optional
Heat a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat. Add couscous and toast grains, stirring pan frequently until brown and fragrant. Transfer to a plate. Add almonds to the hot skillet and toast them, stirring frequently until light brown. Transfer them to another plate.
Bring stock to a boil with celery, garlic, cumin, cayenne, salt and pepper. Simmer about 3 minutes or until celery is slightly softened. Add couscous and raisins to saucepan and stir gently just to mix. Cover pan; remove from heat and allow to stand about 5 minutes or until couscous is tender. Add almonds and lemon zest (if using) to couscous and gently fluff grains with a fork.
• Note: Toasting the couscous gives it a rich, nutty flavor. Stir frequently to make sure it browns evenly.
Give the box or bag of raisins a good shake before buying. If the raisins rattle inside, it means they are dried out. Tightly sealed raisins will last about a month when stored in a cool, dark place and up to a year in the refrigerator.
Dried-up raisins can be revived by blanching them in boiling water for 10 minutes.
Anne Palumbo is a lifestyle columnist, food guru, and seasoned cook, who has perfected the art of preparing nutritious, calorie-conscious dishes. She is hungry for your questions and comments about SmartBites, so be in touch with Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org.