Monday, November 1, 2010

Healthy Fruit: Apricot

The apricot (Prunus armeniaca) is a species of Prunus, classified with the plum in the subgenus Prunus. The native range is somewhat uncertain due to its extensive prehistoric cultivation.
It is a small tree, 8–12 m tall, with a trunk up to 40 cm diameter and a dense, spreading canopy. The leaves are ovate, 5–9 cm long and 4–8 cm wide, with a rounded base, a pointed tip and a finely serrated margin. The flowers are 2–4.5 cm diameter, with five white to pinkish petals; they are produced singly or in pairs in early spring before the leaves. The fruit is a drupe similar to a small peach, 1.5–2.5 cm diameter (larger in some modern cultivars), from yellow to orange, often tinged red on the side most exposed to the sun; its surface is usually pubescent. The single seed is enclosed in a hard stony shell, often called a "stone", with a grainy, smooth texture except for three ridges running down one side.
Today the cultivars have spread to all parts of the globe with climates that support it. Apricots have been cultivated in Persia since antiquity, and dried ones were an important commodity on Persian trade routes. Apricots remain an important fruit in modern-day Iran where they are known under the common name of Zard-alu. Egyptians usually dry apricots, add sweetener, and then use them to make a drink called "'amar al-din".
More recently, English settlers brought the apricot to the English colonies in the New World. Most of modern American production of apricots comes from the seedlings carried to the west coast by Spanish missionaries. Almost all U.S. production is in California, with some in Washington and Utah.
Many apricots are also cultivated in Australia, particularly South Australia, where they are commonly grown in the region known as the Riverland and in a small town called Mypolonga in the Lower Murray region of the state. In states other than South Australia, apricots are still grown, particularly in Tasmania and western Victoria and southwest New South Wales, but they are less common than in South Australia.
Although the apricot is native to a continental climate region with cold winters, it can grow in Mediterranean climates if there is some cool winter weather to allow a proper dormancy. The dry climate of these areas is good for fruit maturation. The tree is slightly more cold-hardy than the peach, tolerating winter temperatures as cold as −30 °C or lower if healthy. A limiting factor in apricot culture is spring frosts: They tend to flower very early, meaning spring frost can kill the flowers. Furthermore, the trees are sensitive to temperature changes during the winter season. In their native China, winters can be very cold, but temperatures tend to be more stable than in Europe and especially North America, where large temperature swings can occur in winter. Hybridisation with the closely related Prunus sibirica (Siberian apricot; hardy to −50 °C but with less palatable fruit) offers options for breeding more cold-tolerant plants.
Apricot cultivars are most often grafted on plum or peach rootstocks. The scion from an existing apricot plant provides the fruit characteristics such as flavour, size, etc., but the rootstock provides the growth characteristics of the plant. Apricots and plums can hybridize with each other and produce fruit that are variously called pluots, plumcots, or apriums.
Medicinal and non-food uses
Cyanogenic glycosides (found in most stone fruit seeds, bark, and leaves) are found in high concentration in apricot seeds. Laetrile, a purported alternative treatment for cancer, is extracted from apricot seeds. Apricot seeds "were used against tumors as early as A.D. 502. In England during the seventeenth century, apricot oil was also used against tumors, swellings, and ulcers". In 2005, scientists in the Republic of Korea found that treating human prostate cancer cells with amygdalin induces programmed cell death. They concluded that "amygdalin may offer a valuable option for the treatment of prostate cancers".
Due to their high fiber to volume ratio, dried apricots are sometimes used to relieve constipation or induce diarrhea. Effects can be felt after eating as few as three.
Research shows that of any food, apricots possess the highest levels and widest variety of carotenoids. Carotenoids are antioxidants that help prevent heart disease, reduce "bad cholesterol" levels, and protect against cancer. Although initial studies suggested that antioxidant supplements might promote health, later large clinical trials did not detect any benefit and suggested instead that excess supplementation may be harmful. In traditional Chinese medicine, apricots are considered helpful in regenerating body fluids, detoxifying, and quenching thirst.
Apricots, raw : Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy 201 kJ (48 kcal) | Carbohydrates 11 g
Sugars 9 g | Dietary fiber 2 g
Fat  0.4 g | Protein 1.4 g
Vitamin A equiv. 96 μg (11%)
- beta-carotene 1,094 μg (10%)
Vitamin C  10 mg (17%) | Iron 0.4 mg (3%)

Apricots, dried : Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy 1,009 kJ (241 kcal) | Carbohydrates 63 g
Sugars 53 g | Dietary fiber 7 g
Fat  0.5 g | Protein 3.4 g
Vitamin A equiv. 180 μg (20%) | - beta-carotene 2,163 μg (20%)
Vitamin C  1 mg (2%) | Iron 2.7 mg (22%)
Percentages are relative to US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient database

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