Avoiding pears? It did not make much sense to me – pears are very nutritious. I just could not understand but I promised to do some research and discover why my friend had been told to avoid pears.
Within the week I emailed him and explained what I thought was up…
Okay, I would never recommend that you go against the advice of your health care professional, but I would certainly recommend that you check back with them because I bet that they are referring to the cans of pears you can buy that sit on the shelves of your local mega-mart just soaking in sugary heavy syrup. Everyone should avoid those things!
The health benefits of pear fiber also extend into the area of cancer risk. Fiber from pear can bind together not only with bile acids as a whole, but also with a special group of bile acids called secondary bile acids. Excessive amounts of secondary bile acids in the intestine can increase our risk of colorectal cancer (as well as other intestinal problems). 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 (gastric cancer), intake of pears has also been shown to lower cancer risk. Here the key focus has not been on pear fiber, however, 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 2 total fruit servings per day and 4 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.
It's become fairly common to hear both laypersons and healthcare practitioners talking about pears as one of the more easily digested fruits. In fact, many practitioners recommend that pears be one of the first fruits considered when it comes time to introducing an infant to his or her first pureed fruits. Even though I have been unable to find large-scale human studies to support these digestibility claims, I don't question the fact that easier digestion has been experienced by many individuals in the context of pears versus other fruits. One factor that may come into play here is the low acid nature of pears, especially in comparison to widely enjoyed citrus fruits like lemons, grapefruits, and oranges.
It has also become fairly common to hear pears being described as a "hypoallergenic" (low allergy) food. Healthcare practitioners often allow clients to continue eating pears when following a low-allergy diet plan, and many individuals report having fewer allergy-related symptoms when consuming pears versus other fruits. Of course, no fruits are classified as major allergens according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and their rules for identification of allergenic foods on product labels. In addition, I have been unable to find large-scale research studies to support any low-allergy claims for pears. Still, I do not question the fact that many people seem to do much better when consuming pears versus other fruits in terms of allergic response.
It's very possible that these two experiences - better digestibility and decreased allergic response - are related, and that future research will help us understand why pears may provide us with special health benefits in these areas. As with most members of the Rose Family, (yes, pears and apples are roses!!) pears are incredibly health promoting fruits to consume. While pears are not an unusual source of conventional antioxidant or anti-inflammatory nutrients (for example, vitamin E or omega-3 fatty acids), the phytonutrient category is where this fruit excels. For example, in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (1,638 participants, average age range 62-69 years), the combination of apples/pears ranked as the second highest source of flavonols among all fruits and vegetables - partly due to the epicatechin richness of pears. Average flavonol intake in the study was about 14 milligrams per day, and one pear can provide about half of this amount all by itself. Virtually all of these phytonutrients have been shown to provide us with 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. These diseases include heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The many different varieties of pears commonly found in U.S. groceries all belong to the same category known as European Pear (Pyrus communis). These pears typically have a rounded body that tapers into a neck of various lengths.
They are distinct from (but closely related to) the fruit we commonly call "pear apple." Pear apples are completely round with no necks, and while they remind of us of apples in shape, their skins make us think they are pears. Contrary to popular belief, pear apples are not a cross between apples and pears. Pear apples belong to a second category of pear, broadly referred to as Asian pear. Included in this second category are Chinese pear, Japanese pear, and Korean pear (Pyrus pyrifolia) as well as Siberian/Manchurian pear (Pyrus ussuriensis). When these categories are combined, they account for more than 3,000 varieties of pears that people enjoy worldwide.
Pears are found in a variety of colors, including many different shades of green, red, yellow/gold, and brown. Many varieties fail to change color as they ripen, making it more difficult to determine ripeness.
The list below describes some of the more commonly enjoyed varieties of pears:
- Bartlett: best known of the pear varieties in the U.S., and most often the variety found in cans. Bartletts are yellow/green and speckled, and sometimes called Williams pears
- Bosc: cinnamon brown-skinned pears with long tapered necks with a honey-like but complex flavor
- Comice: round, short pears with either green and red coloring, or sometimes almost completely red with especially soft and juicy flesh
- Concorde: tall, skinny, and golden/green pears with flesh that is firmer and more dense than many other varieties
- Forelle: red/green and speckled like a trout, and thus the name, meaning "trout" in German. A small-sized pear that yellows as it ripens.
- Green Anjou: a widely available, compact, and short-necked pear. It doesn't change color much while ripening, so you'll need to use the stem test described in our How to Select and Store section.
- Red Anjou: very much like its green counterpart, except a rich reddish maroon in color and higher in anthocyanins (which is the main reason for its rich red color)
- Red Bartlett: very much like its yellow/green counterpart, except with an all-round bright red skin, they sometimes feature light vertical striping, and like Red Anjou, they are rich in anthocyanins
- Seckel: smallest of the commonly eaten pears, usually yellow/green or olive green in color, and mixed with broad patches of red
- Starkrimson: bright crimson red color, more narrow-necked that Red Anjou, but equally rich in anthocyanins and especially gorgeous in a salad
Since pears are very perishable once they are ripe, the pears you find at the market will generally be unripe and will require a few days of maturing. Look for pears that are firm, but not too hard. They should have a smooth skin that is free of bruises or mold. The color of good quality pears may not be uniform as some may feature russetting where there are brown-speckled patches on the skin; this is an acceptable characteristic and oftentimes reflects a more intense flavor. Avoid pears that are punctured or have dark soft spots.
It is possible, of course, that you may find ripe pears at the market. When trying to determine whether a pear is ripe, don't start by squeezing the whole fruit. Instead, I recommend gently pressing only at the top of the pear, near its stem. If that spot gives in to pressure, the pear is probably optimally ripe for eating. If the flesh feels extremely soft, almost to the point of being squishy, the pear is overripe. For food safety reasons, I recommend that overripe pears only be used in cooked recipes rather than eaten raw.