Peering into the World of Pears
Apples probably come to mind first when you think of fall fruit. With orchards offering “pick your own” days, and hot apple cider and spiced cider donuts gracing restaurant menus and curbside food trucks in autumn, apples do seem to have the market cornered. But they’re not the only game in town when the days get shorter and a chill comes into the air. You know it’s fall when pyramids of pears appear at grocery stores and farmers’ markets.
Fruit is getting a bad rap in some nutrition circles. Aside from honey, fruits are the sweetest-tasting whole, unprocessed foods available. And even though this is, of course, natural sugar, it’s still sugar, and high consumption of fruit may not be suitable for everyone, depending on individual metabolic state and health goals. After all, fruit is “nature’s candy.”
So, pears are sweet, and there’s certainly a lot of buzz these days about cutting back on sugar. Does that mean pears are officially off the menu? No, but a better answer is, it depends. A small pear (about 150g) provides less than 90 calories, almost all of which is carbohydrate. Of the 23g total carbohydrate, approximately 1g is sucrose, 4g are glucose, over 9g are fructose, and 5g are fiber. The glycemic load is miniscule, at a rating of just 5. This would make pears seem like an ideal choice for those struggling with blood glucose management, and, for many years, fruit was considered a great choice for diabetics. This is because fructose has very little impact on blood sugar levels. However, the reason for this is that fructose is metabolized predominantly in the liver. This may be a positive thing when it comes to blood sugar management, but for individuals with other health concerns, heavy consumption of fruit may not be optimal.
But, to be realistic, when you want a little something sweet, better you reach for a pear than a donut, or a can of soda! Compared to certain other fruits and most vegetables, pears aren’t bursting with nutrients, but they’re not completely devoid, either. Data on generic commodity pears in the U.S. show that pears provide small, but not insignificant amounts of vitamins C and K, potassium, copper and manganese. Asian pears, which look like yellow-brown apples and are firmer and slightly less sweet than regular pears, have a similar nutrient profile, but deliver those vitamins and minerals in a lower sugar package. An Asian pear (around 120g) provides 13g of carbohydrate, made up of 4g fiber and 9g of total sugar. (Data on fructose and glucose content are unavailable, but with 9g of total sugar, the fructose content would be less than the amount in regular pears.)
The amount of fructose in pears isn’t cause for alarm. It’s simply a matter of assessing whether pears fit into your diet, based on your goals. If you enjoy fruit, you shouldn’t feel restricted solely to blueberries and raspberries, which are celebrated for their antioxidant content. As long as you eat whole, unprocessed pears, rather than pears canned in syrup, small amounts can fit into a healthy diet.
There are several varieties of pears, but the ones North American consumers are most familiar with are the brown-skinned bosc, Anjou or d’Anjou (available in both green and red), and the yellow-green Bartlett. Farmers’ markets may offer lesser-known varieties, such as Forelle, Seckel, and Comice, which are typically not found in supermarkets. The flesh of under-ripe pears is firmer, crisper, and more tart than ripe pears. To determine when a pear is ripe, experts recommend the “check the neck” method: “Apply gentle pressure to the neck of the pear with your thumb. If it yields to pressure, it’s ripe.” Since pears only ripen at room temperature, an unripe pear will not ripen in the refrigerator, so it’s not recommended to refrigerate fruit that hasn’t yet ripened. Once ripened, though, you can extend the “shelf life” of pears for a few more days by keeping them in the fridge.
Pears need not be limited to a lunchbox snack, or dessert as pear crumble or pears poached in wine. Pears are equally at home in savory dishes, such as celery root and pear puree, sausage-stuffed baked pears, gingered pears and parsnips, and roasted butternut squash and pears. (Those last two are excellent for Thanksgiving!) Check here for a multitude of savory and sweet recipes to highlight this versatile fruit.