Lemons are a very popular and easy fruit to find year round. Lemons grow throughout southern Europe, the Middle East, and into East Asia. They were brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Today, the leading lemon producers are California, Arizona, Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, South Africa and Australia.
Lemon trees thrive in tropical and subtropical climates, although large-scale cultivation is kept in subtropical regions to limit tree diseases and pests. Lemon trees also don’t do well in cold climates because of the fruit’s low sugar content, making them more prone to freezing.
“Lemons are high in vitamin C, folate, potassium, flavonoids and compounds called limonins,” said Alissa Rumsey, a New York City-based registered dietitian, certified strength and conditioning specialist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Limonins are powerful antioxidants found in citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits.
A 2007 study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, showed the effect of limonin on lowering cholesterol. Men and women who had high cholesterol were given limonin and vitamin E daily for a month and their cholesterol levels lowered 20 to 30 percent. The researchers think that limonin reduces apolipoprotein B, which is associated with higher cholesterol levels.
According to World’s Healthiest Foods, a quarter cup of lemon juice contains 31 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C and 3 percent of folate and 2 percent of potassium and 13 calories. A whole raw lemon contains 139 percent of the recommended daily vitamin C intake and has 22 calories.
Recent studies have examined the role of lemons in accessing carotenoids, which are beneficial phytonutrients, from other foods during the digestive process. Carotenoids can have low bioaccessibility and bioavailability, meaning that even if you eat a carotenoid-rich food like carrots, you might not absorb many of the carotenoids. A 2018 study in International Journal of Nutrition and Food Engineering found that the carotenoids in boiled or mashed carrots, when combined with lemon juice, olive oil and whey curd, were nearly 30 percent more bioaccessible than without. This suggests that lemons can be an effective exigent food, meaning that, in addition to their own nutritional properties, they can unleash benefits from other foods when combined with them.
According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, vitamin C stimulates the production of white blood cells and may protect the integrity of immune cells. Vitamin C helps protect leukocytes, which produces antiviral substances. Vitamin C, too, is linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, said Rumsey. A 2015 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at more than 100,000 people and found that those who ate the most fruits and vegetables had a 15 percent lower risk of developing heart disease. Those with the highest vitamin C levels in their plasma had even more reduced rates of heart disease.
Lemons and limes contain the most citric acid of any fruits, which makes them beneficial to those suffering from kidney stones. According to University of Wisconsin Health, citric acid deters stone formation by binding calcium and also breaks up small stones that are forming. The more citric acid in your urine, the more protected you are from forming new kidney stones. Half a cup of pure lemon juice every day or 32 ounces of lemonade has the same amount of citric acid as pharmacological therapy.
A 2011 study published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention found that lemon extract applied to breast cancer cells induced cell death. The lemon extract was applied in-vitro, but the results may suggest powerful cancer-fighting properties in lemons.
Limonins have also been linked to a decrease in cancer risk, said Rumsey. A 2012 article in the Journal of Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics looked at limonins in breast cancer cells and found that they could be a helpful aid to chemotherapy.
Lemons, lemon water and lemon peels have become popular with dieters. A 2017 Scientific Reports study of short-term juice-based diets, all of which had lemon juice as a primary ingredient, saw that participants’ intestinal microbiota associated with weight loss had improved, their vasodilator nitric oxide had increased and the oxidation of their lipids had decreased, resulting in improved wellbeing overall.
New research in BioMed Research International suggests lemons may help damaged livers. The 2017 animal study found that rats who had severely damaged livers from alcohol intake saw liver improvement after consuming lemon juice. Lemon juice significantly inhibited negative effects associated with liver disease.
Lemons are known for their antimicrobial properties. A 2017 book, “Phytochemicals in Citrus: Applications in Functional Foods,”describes how solvents made with lemon peel show antimicrobial activity against salmonella, staphylococcus and other pathogenic bacteria. A 2017 study in The Journal of Functional Foods found that fermented sweet lemon juice showed antibacterial activity against E. coli bacteria.
In general, lemons are quite good for you, but if consumed in excess, can cause gastric reflux problems or heartburn for those who suffer from the conditions. Citric acid of lemons can wear down the enamel on your teeth, according to World’s Healthiest Foods, which encourages drinking lemon water through a straw.
Lemon can also be employed for cleaning purposes. It is often used as a natural bleaching agent and as a stain remover. Its refreshing scent also makes it a good choice for a natural deodorizer. I put a couple of drops of lemon oil into every load of my front-loading washer to deter mold.
How to Buy
Look for lemons that are heavy for their size and have smooth, thin and firm skin. Select medium to large size lemons, which are usually juicier than small lemons.
Avoid lemons that are soft, spongy, wrinkled and have bumpy skin. These will have less juice.
You can buy lemons all year round but their peak season is April to July.
Bottled lemon juice and other processed fruit juices are not healthy and often contain high amounts of fructose and/or potentially dangerous additives.
How to Store
How long lemons last depends on how they’re stored. At room temperature, they stay good for about a week.
After a week of being left in room temperature, lemons lose their moisture and start to deteriorate. The pores in the lemon rinds allow moisture to escape the fruit, causing it to dry out and go bad.
To keep lemons fresh longer, you can put them into a bowl of water in the fridge. Or, you can use an air-tight silicone bag like Stasher Bags. The water in the bowl serves to replenish the lost moisture to the lemons, and the silicone bag serves the same purpose of maintaining that moisture within the fruit.
Lemons do NOT ripen after harvest, so chilling them immediately is a good way to keep them fresh.
If you have zested a lemon, it will need extra protection to keep from molding. Seal with a beeswax wrap, like those from Nature Bee, and wrap again in aluminum foil.
To freeze whole lemons:
- Place lemons in a freezer-safe bag.
- Remove as much air as possible before sealing.
- Store in the freezer for three to four months.
To thaw, just let them sit in cold water for about 15 minutes
How to Cook
Wash lemons before cutting. The zest (the yellow outer skin) is edible and is very flavorful. Remove it with a grater or peeler, taking care not to cut the bitter inner white skin, called the pith. Lemons are available throughout the year but summer is their peak season. Lemons are an extremely versatile fruit. You can eat them in slices, add slices to make lemon water, make lemonade, garnish food with them, candy their peels, and use their juice and peels in cooking.
Lemonade recipes vary but I like one cup of lemon juice, 1/2 cup of maple syrup, one cup of water. Use this as a “lemonade syrup” – add to ice water to get exactly how sweet or citrusy is perfect for you.