The Sweetness of Fruit, including Cotton Candy Grapes

August 6, 2013 in Antioxidants, Diabetes Management, fiber, Health, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Last week I read a story about a fruit breeder in Kern County – a rural part of California where I enjoyed shooting the rapids, floating down the Kern River and exploring the mountains during my preteen and teenage years. One on my numerous childhood memories of the ‘50s and ‘60s was the drive to the cabin from my grandparent’s Van Nuys home, in the suburbs of Los Angeles. We went through the grape-growing lands of Weedpatch, Lamont and sometimes Bakersfield. John Steinbeck first made Weedpatch famous in his novel The Grapes of Wrath. It was a rescue center for distressed migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. But for me, there were two things that made Weedpatch famous. First, was that the heat of summer combined with the ripening grapes; the air was saturated with the smell of hot grapes. It was absolutely amazing to me that there were enough grapes to permeate the air mile after mile.  I will say that our car did not have air conditioning so the windows were wide open and we breathed in the pungent smell of ripening grapes; or maybe they were grapes drying in the hot dessert sun to become raisins. The second memory was the fact that we almost always stopped there for a soft serve ice cream – sweet vanilla coolness in the hot California dessert.

So that is, of course, a half century or more in the past. What do my old memories of Weedpatch have to do with a fruit breeder in Kern County? David Cain, the fruit breeder in the LA Times article is working on Cotton Candy grapes; you have to admit, that’s a pretty catchy name. I immediately thought, “that land out there has certainly proven its worth as a place to grow grapes for over 150 years.” Table grapes, wine grapes or raisins, all happily grow in the hot, dry California environment.

David Cain has been designing new fruit for a long time. Designer-fruit is a huge business and many of us have enjoyed the “fruits” of designer-fruit breeding. Just think back to a few months ago and how you enjoyed Cuties, those yummy little Clementines. Or maybe take yourself all the way back to last fall, when you blotted your face from a juicy splash sustained when you bit into a Honeycrisp apple. Fruit breeders see our nation of increasingly unhealthy junk-food addicts as their growth opportunity. Thus, they’re trying to challenge the candy bar and cookie processors by producing fruit that gives the sensation of spun sugar. Now before I say that it will not be delicious, I have to remember that I love Honeycrisp apples and Cuties. So I’m guessing that I’m not as ‘sweet intolerant’ as I might predict.

Crossbreeding has been going on for a long time and the designers who use crossbreeding try hard to distinguish themselves from those who contrive controversial genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If you don’t know much about crossbreeding, then you may be interested in the list of fruits and vegetables that Luther Burbank (1849 – 1926) developed over a century ago. Crossbreeders essentially use the pollen of one plant to pollinate the flower of another plant. Then you wait (sometimes for 15 years or more) for the fruit and see what you get. Because of the benefits of crossbreeding, very few fruits and vegetables are the same as they were one or two hundred years ago.

If you have a moment, don’t miss seeing the cool pictures in the LA Times article of the fingerling grapes called Witch Finger, Sweet Sapphire and the Cotton Candy grapes and, of course, the picture of the geneticist David Cain.

Are any of you having a problem seeing how I can be self-consistent in what I write about reducing sugar consumption, with my eager recommendations toward fruit, even if it has lots of sugar? No I have not forgotten the health problems of obesity and diabetes perpetrated upon us by eating too much sugar. I’ve even met some of you who shun fruit because of its high sugar content. But let me tell you here that I hope you will not reject fruit in your goal to reduce sugar intake. May I recommend an article (Examining the Health Effects of Fructose) in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)? They discovered in a just published observational study that those with increased fruit consumption had lower body weight and lower risk of obesity-associated diseases.

As I have explained in many articles, whole fruits are rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber. That fiber helps us to feel full, while providing plenty of benefits from the nutrients. Besides the act of chewing whole fruit, which slows the release of sugar, in addition, the fiber slows the absorption of fructose, the main sugar in most fruits. It takes time for the sugar to be extracted from the fibrous cells of fruit into the blood stream. Which, of course is why I don’t encourage getting the nutrients from fruit juice. If you’ve ever had a friend whose diabetes wasn’t in perfect control, you may have seen them quickly raise their blood sugar to solve a hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) problem. My friend, and I’m sure some of yours, use fruit juice to do the job. Most of us need to avoid a quick spike in blood sugar; therefore, choose fruit instead of juice.

A second reason to eat whole fruit instead of juice is because fiber makes us feel full, and it may contribute to the quelling of appetite and the possibility of subsequent overeating. Processed foods on the other hand are absorbed very quickly and don’t give your body a chance to produce the satiety hormones. In addition, you have to eat many grapes or other sweet fruit to get the same amount of sugar provided in candy or cookies.

So I guess that I’d say ‘yes’ to a soft serve ice cream once in a while, but I’d say ‘yes’ to fruit on a regular daily basis. The weather says it’s time for a nice float down a river while nibbling a bunch of sweet, juicy grapes.