The World of Citrus

Food As Medicine

The World of Citrus: 6 Fun and Nutritious Facts

Winter is in full swing here in Wisconsin. Temperatures have plummeted, snow covers the landscape, and most fields lie dormant. Since many people in this area can’t grow their produce given the climate this time of year, finding local, fresh produce is more challenging. We often hear that eating locally grown and seasonal produce is best to ensure it is as fresh and nutritious as possible. Since there isn’t much grown locally in my area this time of year, I wondered, “Which fruits or vegetables are seasonal during the winter months?” One item that came to mind is citrus! 

Even though citrus isn’t grown locally in this area, it is abundant this time of year. Growing up, I have fond memories of having plenty of oranges and grapefruits in my house during winter. My dad belongs to a Rotary group that raises funds in the winter by selling citrus. I was constantly peeling the oranges since no one else in my house liked the job, and I was meticulous at getting all the pith off the oranges. Little did I know then that beyond the fond memories of citrus in the winter months, there are many nutritional benefits of consuming these bright and vibrant fruits. Let’s discuss some fun and nutritious facts about citrus and why we should consume them year-round. 

Fun Fact #1: Oranges, clementines, and grapefruits do not ripen over time like bananas, mangoes, pears, and other fruits. Citrus are called non-climacteric fruits because they don’t have starch reserves, requiring them to stay on the plant until they are ripe and suitable for eating. As the fruits mature, oranges become juicy and sweet, grapefruits get sour and tangy, and lemons and limes become acidic1.

Nutrition Fact #1: Compounds in citrus fruits can protect your DNA and reduce certain cancers. Citrus fruits are the best dietary factor in boosting DNA repair2. Our DNA is constantly exposed to compounds and processes within the body that can cause mutations that lead to cancer. In as little as 2 hours after consuming citrus, your DNA becomes more resistant to damage3. The beneficial compounds within citrus are in the fruit and the rind. Therefore, focus on consuming the whole fruit to get the most benefit. Supplements and citrus juice did not appear to boost DNA repair compared to the whole fruit4.

Fun Fact #2: Citrus is included in the top 10 US-produced fruits list5. Most citrus grown here includes oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, and lemons. Oranges are grown mainly in Florida or California6.

Nutrition Fact #2: One commonly known nutrient obtained from citrus is Vitamin C. It is an antioxidant that protects our cells from damage. Free radicals in our body cause oxidative stress, which triggers inflammation and drives many chronic diseases. Vitamin C prevents oxidative stress, which reduces inflammation. Vitamin C also helps strengthen our immune system, and since it is necessary to make collagen, it helps build and maintain healthy bones, joints, and skin. Vitamin C is water-soluble, which means the body doesn’t store it. Since our body can’t make or store Vitamin C, obtaining it in our diet is necessary to ensure adequate amounts7. Supplementation with Vitamin C does not have the same cancer-reducing potential as obtaining it from a dietary source8.

Fun Fact #3: Exposing your skin to citrus juice, followed by subsequent exposure to sunlight, can lead to skin sensitivity or even burns. Many citrus fruits, including limes, contain a compound called furanocoumarin. If this compound is on your skin and gets exposed to UV rays in direct sunlight, it can cause a reaction called phytophotodermatitis, also known as “margarita burn .” This reaction can cause redness of the skin or even blisters, equivalent to second-degree burns9,10. Be very cautious after eating or preparing citrus fruits, and consider washing your hands or any skin exposed to citrus juice before going into direct sunlight!

Nutrition Fact #3: Hesperidin is another type of antioxidant in citrus fruits. It belongs to a class of plant-based compounds called flavonoids. Hesperidin and other flavonoids have anti-inflammatory properties and protective effects in many body parts, including the brain11. One study found that a higher intake of flavonoids was associated with lower chances of cognitive decline in both men and women12. Hesperidin can also help preserve the function of brain tissue and protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis13,14.

In conclusion, not only does citrus add a vibrant burst of color to the dreary days of winter, but these fruits also offer numerous nutritional benefits. Beyond their refreshing taste, these fruits contribute to overall well-being, supporting immune function, skin health, and more. Incorporating the delightful world of citrus into our diet couldn’t be easier. Peel an orange, grapefruit, or tangerine and eat them whole. Juice a lemon or lime and add to smoothies, soups, or salads for a fresh burst of flavor. Add grated zest from an orange, lemon, or lime to baked goods, sauces, marinades, or salad dressings. The possibilities are endless, the health benefits are abundant, and the flavors are vibrant! 

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1.) Qureshi, S. (2021, March 11). Top 10 science facts about citrus. Garden Museum. https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/learning-december-citrus/citrus-facts/

2.) Szeto YT, Chu WK, Benzie IF. Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables: a study of cellular availability and direct effects on human DNA. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2006 Oct;70(10):2551-5. doi: 10.1271/bbb.60224. Epub 2006 Oct 7. PMID: 17031063.

3.) Szeto YT, To TL, Pak SC, Kalle W. A study of DNA protective effect of orange juice supplementation. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 May;38(5):533-6. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2012-0344. Epub 2012 Nov 21. PMID: 23668761.

4.) Astley, S. B., Elliott, R. M., Archer, D. B., & Southon, S. (2004). Evidence that dietary supplementation with carotenoids and carotenoid-rich foods modulates the DNA damage:repair balance in human lymphocytes. British Journal of Nutrition91(1), 63–72. https://doi.org/10.1079/bjn20031001

5.) TasteAtlas. (2023, November 30). 12 best fruits (types and products) in the United States of America. TasteAtlas. https://www.tasteatlas.com/best-rated-fruits-types-and-products-in-usa

6.) Luckstead, J., & Devadoss, S. (n.d.). Trends and issues facing the US Citrus Industry. https://www.choicesmagazine.org/UserFiles/file/cmsarticle_775.pdf

7.) Valeii, K. (2023, May 31). Citrus fruits: Nutrition, health benefits, risks, and more. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/citrus-fruits-7498754

8.) Holtan SG, O’Connor HM, Fredericksen ZS, Liebow M, Thompson CA, Macon WR, Micallef IN, Wang AH, Slager SL, Habermann TM, Call TG, Cerhan JR. Food-frequency questionnaire-based estimates of total antioxidant capacity and risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Int J Cancer. 2012 Sep 1;131(5):1158-68. doi: 10.1002/ijc.26491. Epub 2011 Nov 30. PMID: 22038870; PMCID: PMC3306533.

9.) Matthews MR, VanderVelde JC, Caruso DM, Foster KN. Lemons in the Arizona Sunshine: The Effects of Furocoumarins Leading to Phytophotodermatitis and Burn-like Injuries. Wounds. 2017 Dec;29(12):E118-E124. PMID: 29324427.) (Maniam G, Light KM, Wilson J. Margarita Burn: Recognition and Treatment of Phytophotodermatitis. J Am Board Fam Med. 2021 Mar-Apr;34(2):398-401. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2021.02.200382. PMID: 33833009.

10.) Berry, C. (2023, January 5). The health benefits of citrus fruits. Experience Life. https://experiencelife.lifetime.life/article/the-health-benefits-of-citrus-fruits/

11.) Levy, J. (2021, April 11). The citrus bioflavonoid that supports the Brain & Heart. Dr. Axe. https://draxe.com/nutrition/hesperidin/

12.) Yeh TS, Yuan C, Ascherio A, Rosner BA, Willett WC, Blacker D. Long-term Dietary Flavonoid Intake and Subjective Cognitive Decline in US Men and Women. Neurology. 2021 Sep 7;97(10):e1041-e1056. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000012454. Epub 2021 Jul 28. Erratum in: Neurology. 2021 Dec 7;97(23):1096. PMID: 34321362; PMCID: PMC8448553.

13.) Wang D, Liu L, Zhu X, Wu W, Wang Y. Hesperidin alleviates cognitive impairment, mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2014 Nov;34(8):1209-21. doi: 10.1007/s10571-014-0098-x. Epub 2014 Aug 19. PMID: 25135708.

14.) Hajialyani M, Hosein Farzaei M, Echeverría J, Nabavi SM, Uriarte E, Sobarzo-Sánchez E. Hesperidin as a Neuroprotective Agent: A Review of Animal and Clinical Evidence. Molecules. 2019 Feb 12;24(3):648. doi: 10.3390/molecules24030648. PMID: 30759833; PMCID: PMC6384806.

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