Monday, October 29, 2012

Pears: Underrated Nutritional Superstars

This fall, instead of gravitating towards apples (I know — they’re so much easier to love: ripening more predictably in our fruit bowls, traveling better without bruising, simultaneously offering tart crunch and creamy flesh, and coming in a wide range of different flavors, shapes and colors), give pears a chance: this may be one of the healthiest food choices you can make.

Pears are a powerhouse of anti-cancer nutrition, especially if you eat their skins. Recent studies have shown that the skin of pears contains three to four times as many phenolic plant nutrients as the flesh. 

These phytonutrients include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory flavonoids and potentially anti-cancer phytonutrients like cinnamic acids. Pears are also an excellent source of dietary fiber – both soluble and insoluble – roughly half of which is concentrated in their skins.

One area in which pears have been found to be helpful is maintaining stable blood glucose levels. Certain chemicals in food can improve our cells’ insulin sensitivity – i.e. their receptiveness to insulin, a hormone our bodies produce to regulate blood glucose levels. High blood glucose and insulin levels increase our cancer risk, so it’s important to keep these moderate, and by sensitizing our cells to the effects of insulin, we can lower both the insulin and the glucose circulating in our bloodstream.

Of special interest in this area have been three groups of flavonoids (flavonols, flavan-3-ols, and anthocyanins); all pears contain flavonoids falling within the first two groups, and red-skinned pears contain anthocyanins as well. Most phytonutrients such as these provide antioxidant as well as anti-inflammatory benefits. As a result, intake of pears has now been associated with decreased risk of several common chronic diseases that begin with chronic inflammation and excessive oxidative stress, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Pears also appear to reduce cancer risks. For one, fiber from pears can bind together not only with bile acids as a whole, but also with a group of bile acids called “secondary bile acids”. Excessive amounts of secondary bile acids in the intestine can increase our risk of colorectal cancer. By binding together with secondary bile acids, pear fibers can help decrease their concentration in the intestine and lower our risk of cancer development.

In the case of stomach cancer, pear consumption has also been shown to reduce risk. Here the key focus has not been on pear fiber, but on pear phytonutrients, especially cinnamic acids (including coumaric acid, ferulic acid, and 5-caffeoylquinic acid). In a recent study from Mexico City, it took approximately two total fruit servings per day and four daily vegetable servings to accomplish a decrease in gastric cancer risk. Pears and mangos were among the key foods determined to provide cinnamic acids in the study.

Esophageal cancer (specifically, esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, or ESCC) is a third cancer type for which pear intake helps lower risk. In a very large-scale study conducted by the National Institutes of Health and the American Association of Retired Persons (involving 490,802 participants), pears were found to be a key food associated with reduced risk of ESCC. Interestingly, numerous foods belonging the rose (Rosaceae) family were also found to lower risk of ESCC, including apples, plums, and strawberries (1).

So let’s hear if for pears! And why not celebrate them in style with this delicious pan-cake that makes a nourishing breakfast, after-school snack or dessert. It’s quick and simple to prepare, especially if you use a well-seasoned cast-iron pan.

Pear and Almond Pancake (serves 4-5) – loosely inspired by a recipe in the Oct/Nov 2012 edition of Fine Cooking.

2 ripe-yet-firm pears (organic)
finely grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon (organic)
3 large eggs
½ cup almond milk
1 tbsp raw, runny honey
1 tsp natural vanilla extract
pinch of salt
½ tsp ground cardamom or ginger
½ cup ground almonds
2 tbsp unsalted fresh butter or ghee (clarified butter)
1 tbsp almond slivers
1 tsp confectioner’s sugar

Pre-heat oven to 400°F/200°C.

Wash the pears and cut them into eighths, removing the cores. Place them in a bowl and drizzle with the lemon juice, toss to cover with the juice and set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat eggs with an electric whisk on high speed until they are light and foamy – about 3 minutes. Add almond milk, honey, vanilla, salt, cardamom and lemon zest and mix on low speed to combine. Add ground almonds and mix again to combine.

Heat a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat until hot – about 2 minutes. Add the butter or ghee (whichever using) and when it is hot, add the pear slices. Cook for 1-2 minutes on each side until golden, arrange pear slices in a single layer in the pan, pour batter evenly over the pears and sprinkle with almond slivers. Slide the skillet into the pre-heated oven and bake until the cake is set in the middle and puffy around the sides, and the bottom is lightly browned – about 20 minutes.

Remove and dust lightly with confectioner’s sugar (if desired). Serve with a teaspoon of plain Greek yogurt or sour cream; can be served immediately or eaten at room temperature.

(1)      My thanks to World’s Healthiest Foods for their detailed analysis of pears’ health benefits. More information can be found here:

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