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The Gifts of Citrus

Colorful Good Health in Holiday Dishes

by Judith Fertig

Winter citrus fruits that arrive in a gift basket or show up on sale at the grocer present a welcome bright spot on winter's darker days. Valencia and blood oranges, limes and Meyer lemons are delicious in their own right, and deserve their place on the breakfast table. Yet there are many other intriguing ways to enjoy them in vinaigrettes, salads, main dishes, baked goods and desserts.

Winter citrus is full of health benefits, just when we need them most; during the busy holiday season. To start, they help bolster our immune system, guarding against colds or helping us recover faster. Their high vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, content is water soluble. According to a comprehensive study by the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, a daily 400 milligrams of vitamin C can halve the incidence of colds in adults and cut their duration by 14 percent. 

The flavonoid hesperidin in citrus helps boost "good" HDL cholesterol and lowers "bad" LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, report researchers in the Journal of Nutrition. In a new study in Nutritional Neuroscience, hesperidin in citrus also was found to ameliorate brain deterioration found in Alzheimer's patients.

Other studies further show that the grapefruit diet wasn't wrong; eating half a fresh grapefruit before each meal can help us lose weight. In a study conducted at the Scripps Clinic, in La Jolla, California, and published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers put overweight volunteers on an exercise plan for 12 weeks and asked them to eat either half a fresh grapefruit or drink apple juice and pop a placebo pill before each meal. The grapefruit group dropped an average of three-and-a-half pounds, compared to only one-half pound for the apple group.

Limonoids, an antioxidant found in most citrus, may help guard against stomach, lung, breast and skin cancer, according to the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. Animal and human cell studies found that limonoids—especially those in fresh oranges—harbor potential as anticancer compounds. Another study in Nutritional Neuroscience showed that the volatile compound limonene, found in the rind of a lemon, can enhance memory.

As nights grow colder and longer, winter citrus "adds a little sunshine to every meal," says Jamie Schler, author of the recently released cookbook Orange Appeal: Savory & Sweet. Schler grew up in Florida, surrounded by citrus groves between the Atlantic Coast and Indian River.

"Winters meant Dad's workbench in the garage groaning under the weight of brown paper grocery bags filled to bursting with navels, tangerines, grapefruits, Valencias and tangelos," writes Schler. "I fondly recall trips in the old green station wagon to the groves on chilly weekend mornings where we could pick them ourselves." Today, Schler and her husband own and operate the boutique Hotel Diderot, in Chinon, France, where life's a feast—especially during citrus season.

Judith Fertig writes cookbooks and foodie fiction from Overland Park, KS (JudithFertig.com).