Though Americans are eating more fruit these days (go us!), more than half are the old standbys: bananas, apples, and oranges. Yes, they’re good for you—but you’re missing out. “Different fruits provide an array of disease-fighting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,” says Joy Bauer, RD, author of Joy Bauer’s Food Cures. In fact, broadening your horizons can measurably improve your health. Colorado State University nutritionists asked 106 women to eat 8 to 10 servings of produce daily for 8 weeks. Half the group chose from 18 different varieties, while the others ate the same 5 over and over again. Two weeks later, blood tests showed that the high-variety group reduced their rates of DNA oxidation, possibly making their bodies more resilient against disease; the other group had no change. (Looking for answers to your most pressing health questions? Prevention has you covered—get a FREE trial + 12 FREE gifts.)
Ready to mix it up? Here’s a quickie primer on some of the smartest “exotic” picks based on their health benefits—and how to serve them in place of common favorites.
For perfect blood pressure
Better: Fresh figs
Why: Six fresh figs have 891 mg of blood pressure-lowering potassium, nearly 20% of your daily need—about double what you’d find in one large banana. In a recent 5-year study from the Netherlands, high-potassium diets were linked with lower rates of death from all causes in healthy adults age 55 and older.
You’ll also get…a boost to your bones. Figs are one of the best fruit sources of calcium, with nearly as much per serving (six figs) as ½ cup of fat-free milk!
Shop for figs that are dry on the surface and feel heavy in the hand. A perfectly ripe fig may have slight cracks that are bursting with the fruit’s sweet syrup.
Serve by chopping and adding to yogurt, cottage cheese, oatmeal, or green salads. Or, enjoy them as a savory snack: Cut a slit in the side and stuff with 1/2 teaspoon of a low-fat version of a soft cheese such as chèvre or Brie.
To protect your heart and fight disease
Good: Red grapes
Why: A French study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that lychee has the second-highest level of heart-healthy polyphenols of all fruits tested—nearly 15% more than the amount found in grapes (cited by many as a polyphenol powerhouse). The compounds may also play an important role in the prevention of degenerative diseases such as cancer. “Polyphenols act like a force field, helping to repel foreign invaders from damaging your cells,” says David Grotto, RD, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life!
You’ll also get…protection from breast cancer. A recent test-tube and animal study from Sichuan University in China found that lychee may help to prevent the formation of breast cancer cells, thanks to the fruit’s powerful antioxidant activity.
Shop for lychee with few black marks on the rough, leathery shell, which can be anywhere from red to brown in color. Look for fruit that gives when pressed gently. Shells should be intact and the fruit attached to the stem.
Serve by peeling or breaking the outer covering just below the stem; use a knife to remove the black pit. Add to stir-fries or skewer onto chicken kebabs to add a sweet, grapelike flavor.
For beautiful skin
Why: One cup of guava has nearly five times as much skin-healing vitamin C (it’s a key ingredient in collagen production) as a medium orange (377 mg versus 83 mg)—that’s more than five times your daily need. Women who eat a lot of vitamin C-packed foods have fewer wrinkles than women who don’t eat many, according to a recent study that tracked the diets of more than 4,000 American women ages 40 to 74.
You’ll also get…bacteria-busting power. Guava can protect against foodborne pathogens such as Listeria and Staph, according to research by microbiologists in Bangladesh. Also, a cooperative study by the USDA and Thai scientists found that guava has as much antioxidant activity as some well-known superfoods like blueberries and broccoli (though every plant contains a different mix of the healthful compounds).
Shop for guava using your nose. A ripe guava has a flowery fragrance, gives a bit to the touch, and has a thin, pale green to light yellowish rind.
Serve by adding to fruit cobbler recipes (the tiny seeds are edible) or simmer chunks in water as you would to make applesauce. Guava also makes a super smoothie: Blend ½ banana, ½ ripe guava, a handful of strawberries, ½ cup soy milk, and a few ice cubes.
To lower cholesterol
Better: Asian pears
Why: One large Asian pear has nearly 10 g of cholesterol-lowering fiber, about 40% of your daily need; a large apple has about half that much. People who ate the most fiber had the lowest total and “bad” cholesterol levels, according to a recent study of Baltimore adults.
You’ll also get…protection from creeping weight gain. The same researchers found that people who ate the most fiber also weighed the least and had the lowest body mass index and waist circumference.
Shop for pears with a firm feel; fragrant aroma; and blemish-free, yellow brownish skin. Some pears are speckled in appearance; the markings shouldn’t affect flavor.
Serve by dicing it into a salad of Boston lettuce, crumbled goat cheese, walnuts, and mandarin oranges. Or, make it a dessert: Add peeled and cored pears to a saucepan with 1 cup white wine, 1 teaspoon honey, 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger, and enough water to cover the pears. Cover and simmer 40 minutes or until pears are soft.
To fight cancer
Why: It is one of the top sources of beta-cryptoxanthin, which research suggests can protect against lung cancer. Like watermelon, it is also a rich source of lycopene. “Although there is currently no recommendation for how much lycopene you should consume in a day, research shows that the nutrient may protect against several different types of cancer, including stomach, endometrial, and prostate,” says Grotto.
You’ll also get…better healing. Papayas may help speed burn recovery when used topically, thanks partly to the enzyme papain, which also aids in digestion. “Papain helps break down amino acids, the building blocks of protein,” says Elisa Zied, RD, an American Dietetic Association spokesperson.
Shop for a papaya with yellow golden skin that yields to gentle pressure.
Serve by cutting lengthwise and discarding black seeds. Scoop the flesh using a spoon and sprinkle with lemon juice. Or combine chopped papaya, mango, red bell pepper, red onion, raspberries, lemon juice, and cilantro for a fruit salsa. Serve over grilled fish.