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Get a good dose of vitamin C while enjoying lemons

by Doris Penner

A lemon a day keeps the doctor away. While this is usually said of apples, it is equally true of citrus fruit since each piece—whether it is a lemon, orange, lime or grapefruit—is a powerhouse of nutrients. Many of you grew up with Mom making sure you had an orange or half a grapefruit every day as I did, and whether you appreciated it or not, it was the best thing she could have done. Oranges are sweet member of the citrus family, popular as a snack or breakfast food. Maybe it's time to take a fresh look at its cousin, the lemon—too vibrantly tangy to eat out of hand, but still easy to work into your diet. This bright yellow oval-shaped fruit offers a myriad of health benefits because of its high content of vitamin C as well as providing a range of other nutrients.

When you stop to think about it, lemons are a great asset in the kitchen, offering an invaluable flavour component to dishes and condiments. Grated rind or juice adds zest to cakes, muffins and loaves, and brightens up soups, sauces and salad dressings. Lemon meringue pie has to be one of the favourite of all desserts and what would picnics and beach parties be without lemonade?

So you add lemon slices to a glass of water and a squirt of juice to a sauce bubbling on the stove—does the little we use make any difference for health? It should be noted that a little goes a long way when it comes to lemons. Two tablespoons of juice—the amount found in an average-sized lemon—provides the vitamin C recommended for the day which is 50 mg by Health Canada standards.

Boosts immune system

One of the roles of vitamin C is to boost the immune system. A strong immunity helps your body fight colds, influenza viruses and infections. Although people in the 1800s were not aware of vitamin C as a nutrient, it was recognized that a substance in citrus fruit, notably lemons, protected against disease. Thus sailors on long voyages took lemons with them, and miners in Yukon and California gold rushes were willing to pay an exorbitant price for the fruit which was sometimes hard to come by.

Vitamin C is one of the most important antioxidants found in foods, and the primary water-soluble antioxidant in the body. As such, the vitamin neutralizes any free radicals it contacts as it travels through the aqueous environment inside and outside of cells. Free radicals damage the membranes of healthy cells, causing inflammation, which often results in painful swelling. Thus it makes sense that vitamin C is helpful in reducing some of the symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Free radicals can also damage blood vessels, making it easier for cholesterol to build up on artery walls. By doing away with free radicals, vitamin C plays a role in preventing the development and progression of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart attack and stroke. Maintaining the elasticity and health of blood vessels is also important to help prevent easy bleeding and encourage the healing of wounds.

A variety of minerals, phytochemicals and flavonoids which have antibiotic and anti-cancer effects have also been identified in lemons. One is a compound called limonin which is a potent anti-carcinogen, helping to keep cancerous cells from proliferating. Limonin is particularly effective because is remains active for up to six hours after ingesting, longer than many anti-carcinogens.

Adds a refreshing highlight

Adding lemon slices to water is a good way to increase lemon juice intake—but that's only a beginning. What are some other ways to utilize this citrus fruit? Place thinly sliced lemons on fish before baking or broiling. The slices will soften and can be eaten along with the fish. Use lemon juice in place of vinegar when preparing salad dressings. Think of how a squeeze of lemon might improve your favourite dishes—a citrus flavour adds a refreshing highlight to many meats and vegetables, for example. In the same way, shreds of grated lemon rind will do wonders to spark up a blueberry loaf, bran muffins or a fruit pie. Ingest in moderation lemon drinks and desserts with lemon flavour since they are tied up with a great deal of sugar.

Lemons are readily available in supermarkets all year round. Choose thin-skinned ones, heavy for their size to ensure the highest juice content. They stay well at room temperature for up to five days, and up to three weeks in the refrigerator. If you have an overabundance—say you found them on sale and couldn't resist—squeeze the juice and freeze in ice cube trays, placing them in a plastic bag once frozen. This is very handy to add to salad dressings or enliven a stirfry. The rind can be grated and dried for quick addition to baked goods or supper dishes.

You can also find bottled lemon juice on the market which is convenient to have on hand in the refrigerator. Read the label to make sure it is unsweetened pure juice you are paying for. If you purchase organic lemon juice, you will know that no pesticides and herbicides have been used in growing the fruit, and no preservatives have been added while processing.