September 1, 2003

5 Min Read
The Goodness of Grapes

Can you ever get too much of a good thing? When it comes to grapes, the answer is “no.” With thousands of varieties to choose from, it’s easy to find the right kind for any application. And in addition to their many varieties and uses, grapes are healthy, too. Whether enjoyed as an on-the-go snack or used as a flavorful ingredient in food, grapes offer something good for everyone.

Grapes — which are actually berries — grow in bunches, either as small shrubs or winding vines, in temperate climates throughout the world. The varieties are separated into color categories, including white (or green) and black (or red and blue-black), and by application. You find table grapes, such as Thompson seedless, stocked in the produce section; vintners make wine from wine grapes, such as cabernet; and processors use commercial grapes for food, such as juices, jams and jellies, which incorporate concord grapes, or Muscat grapes, which are dried to create raisins.

The flavors vary as well. Wine grapes, for example, have a high acidity, which makes them too tart for eating. And table grapes, where the converse is true, would make a dull-tasting wine.

Grapes are a naturally nutritious, low-calorie fruit, made of about 80% water, and are a good source of potassium. They contain vitamins A, B1, B2 and C. Rich in pure glucose, or “grape sugar,” they are immensely energizing. Raisins are only about 15% water, but have higher iron and fiber contents.

A number of additional health benefits stem from grapes. The fruits contain phytonutrients, active substances that are believed to protect the body from certain cancers and heart disease. The phytonutrients in grapes are called phenolic compounds, and include quercetin, anthocyanin, catechin and resveratrol. These compounds, of which wine is a major source, also exhibit antioxidant properties.

Resveratrol is found primarily in the skin of grapes, and is touted as a potential anticancer and heart-healthy compound. Studies show that, in humans, resveratrol has anti-infective, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Additional research suggests that the compound helps battle cancer in its various stages, from initiation to promotion to progression.

Studies propose that eating resveratrol-rich foods may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, lower total cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. The compound’s antioxidant properties may also play a part in slowing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

Because resveratrol is water- and fat-soluble, it lends itself to a variety of applications. It’s believed to improve circulation, promote healing and help prevent wrinkles. The antioxidant properties of grapes also have been shown to strengthen blood vessels, boost immunity and inhibit allergies.

Researchers suspect that resveratrol is partially responsible for the cholesterol-lowering effects of red wine; however, there are many other phenolic phytochemicals found in wine that are present at much higher levels. These are called flavonoids, and include anthocyanins, catechins, procyanidins and tannins. Most are antioxidants and promote cardiovascular health. Antioxidant compounds in purple grape juice appear to offer similar benefits to those in red wine, without the alcoholic effects.

At the center of the grape lie the seeds, from which come grape-seed extract and grape-seed oil. The extract is made from seeds left over from the production of wine or juice that are harvested, ground and extracted. They have a high content of compounds known as oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs). Found in virtually all plants, OPCs are considered nontoxic, nonmutagenic, noncarcinogenic, and free of side effects.

Grape seed has become a popular way for people to increase their intake of antioxidants. It is also a dietary source of essential fatty acids and tocopherols. Grape seed is believed to improve circulation (and help reduce conditions such as varicose veins, bruising, swelling, and decreased vision), and to improve skin tone and elasticity. Different formulations of grape seed are available for internal (oral) and external (topical) use.

Grape-seed oil, also from grape seeds, is used for salad dressings, cooking and frying. It can have a light, grapey flavor; a subtle, buttery flavor; or little to no flavor; and imparts no aftertaste. Because of its high smoke point, the oil is very stable and does not smoke, burn or splatter like most other cooking oils. It is rich in linoleic acid, vitamin E and proanthrocyanidins. It also retains many of the healthful properties of grapes, including cholesterol-lowering effects, such as raising HDL (good) cholesterol and lowering LDL cholesterol.

Grape color extract is used as a color additive in many applications, including confections, fruit bases, fruit fillings, sauces and sorbets. Extracting pigments from Concord grape juice or wine sediments, which remain after fermentation and aging, produces the extract. The reddish color is usually obtained from Concord grapes, which have a darker, blue-black color.

As the nation continues to fight the battle of the bulge, consumers and food formulators will continue to look for foods and ingredients that taste good and do good. Perhaps grapes — in their many varieties and forms — will find their way into more applications for consumers to enjoy.

Consider raisins. Not only a convenient and healthy snack, they are also being made into healthy ingredients. Raisin paste, for example, is useful in bakery, confectionery, dairy and cereal applications, as a partial fat replacer. It has a sweet taste and a dark color, enabling it to color sauces and beverages. It also makes a good humectant, and can increase shelf life in various products.

And so long as grapes continue to grow, it’s likely that a whole bunch of new uses will emerge for consumers and formulators to enjoy.

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