Lemon cultivars can be sweet, sour, and downright pucker-inducing. In the kitchen, they can be used in savory dishes and sweet treats, as well as employed as antibacterial cleaning agents. They’re good for digestion, too. That’s a lot of work packed into these little yellow fruits!
Like other citrus fruits, lemons are high in vitamin C, and they also contain small amounts of potassium, folate, and B6. They also have a very small amount of iron, and when consumed along with iron-rich foods, vitamin C helps the body absorb more of this mineral. (A good tip for people who tend toward iron deficiency anemia, and a great reason to try lemon garlic lamb kebabs! Or for vegetarians, how about a lemon dressing for an iron-rich bean salad?)
The acidity of lemons may help aid digestion, and their pectin—a soluble fiber—may help reduce total cholesterol. (This is the same reason oatmeal is sometimes recommended for lowering cholesterol—the soluble fiber binds to cholesterol and helps escort it out of the body, rather than allowing it to be reabsorbed.) It should be noted, however, that lemon juice doesn’t provide fiber. For that, the pulp of the fruit must be consumed. A tall order, perhaps, for people who don’t like the sour taste, but grilling lemons is a way to reduce the ‘pucker factor’ and bring out their sweetness. Preserving lemons in salt or with spices is another way to tone down the tartness and emphasize the sweet zing while making the pulp very soft and easy to eat—including the rind! (Be sure to buy organic if you’re going to use the zest or rind.)
Lemons are sometimes promoted as a weight loss aid. While squeezing a bit of fresh lemon juice on a salad or even eating the pulp of a lemon isn’t going to magically melt the pounds away, there’s some evidence that lemons may help just a little in the fight against excess weight. Mouse studies indicate that lemon polyphenols suppress body weight gain and body fat accumulation by upregulating some of the enzymes involved in the conversion of fats to cellular energy. Lemon polyphenols also may improve insulin and leptin levels, which may be of benefit to individuals with insulin resistance and/or metabolic syndrome. Additionally, adding a splash of lemon juice to water may help people drink more of it throughout the day, which may translate into slightly greater weight loss. People often mistake thirst for hunger, and instead of drinking a glass of water, they reach for a snack—most likely one high in refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils. Staying adequately hydrated may help people avoid those excess calories and insulin spikes. Plus, many people simply don’t like to drink water. A little bit of lemon may make it more appealing.
Other people who may benefit from increasing lemon fruit and juice intake are those at risk for kidney stones or those with a history of stones. The high content of citric acid in lemons may help increase urine volume (particularly if added to beverages) and raise urine pH, both of which would create an unfavorable environment for stone formation. A higher urinary citrate level seems to help protect against kidney stones, and consuming lemon juice is one way to raise the citrate level.
Lemon juice is a powerful antimicrobial agent, which accounts for the use of lemon essential oil in many household cleaning products, particularly those used to clean kitchen counters and cutting boards. Lemon juice has demonstrated antibacterial effects against E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and strains of Salmonella, as well as antifungal effects against the yeast, Candida albicans. Another helpful thing lemons do in the kitchen is keep apples, bananas, pears, and avocados from turning brown when they’re cut prior to adding to a recipe. (Other citrus juice will do this as well, such as orange and lime.)
For those who follow a Paleo or lower-carb diet, just because sugary lemon shortbread bars are off the menu doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other great ways to add more lemon to dinner—and dessert. There’s olive, garlic, and lemon chicken, pan-fried lemon chicken, and a super simple lemon vinaigrette—perhaps the easiest way to add lemon other than just squeezing a wedge over a salad or entrée. To indulge a sweet tooth with lemony treats, try these gluten and dairy-free recipes for lemon pound cake with honey lemon glaze, lemon vanilla meltaways, and lemon mousse.