Pears come in a large number of varieties but all belong to the Rosaceae family along with roses and fruits like apricots, apples, cherries, peaches, raspberries to name a few. The variety of pears most commonly found in U.S and Europe are known as Pyrus communis. This variety has a round body which narrows at the top forming neck like structures of varying lengths.
Another close relative is the “pear apple”. Pear apples are more rounded in shape and have no necks, so in appearance they resemble an apple more than a pear, but their skins resemble the skin of a pear more closely. Contrary to common believe, they are not developed by crossing a pear with an apple. They are a separate variety Pyrus pyrifolia, and include the Chinese pear, Japanese pear and Korean pear. All inclusive there are over 3,000 varieties of pears that people consume around the globe. China is the leading world producer of pears with Italy and United States following. In the US, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia a large proportion of the crop is utilized for canning. In Europe canned pears come in second place in terms of pear usage after desserts and perry (fermented pear juice).
The production of perry was established in France after the fall of the Roman Empire and indications of its production in England appeared at about the time of the Norman Conquest. It was well established in England by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries particularly in west England, where climate was well suited to cultivation of perry pears. In the early 20th century, the perry industry suffered a setback due to the labour intensive cultivation requirements of the perry pears. More recently the industry has been revived with new techniques of producing the drink and giving it a more appealing name of ‘Pear cider’. With the revived commercial lease, industry sales have gone from approximately three and half million to forty-six million pounds in England.
History of Pears
Pears are thought to have been used as food even by the Stone Age people. While the precise origin of the fruit is not known, dried pieces of pears have been discovered in Ice Age cave dwellings in Switzerland. In Asia the use of pears dates as far back as 2500-3000 years. Sixth century Chinese writings mention pears growing in the previous 1500 years.
Earliest Japanese written records of the fruit are found in works published in 720. By 1860 over 150 varieties of pears were recorded and the planting of the pear tree was common. They were most commonly planted on property corners to avert misfortune. In Japanese culture the North-eastern corner was thought to be Devil’s quarter and the demon’s entry point. So having entrances to homes from this direction were avoided, but when absolutely essential, a pear tree was planted as a lucky charm.
Pears were highly appreciated by Romans as well as the Greeks and horticulturists developed more than fifty varieties. Homer called them “gift of the gods”. It was believed that pears had aphrodisiac properties and were sanctified to goddesses of love, Venus and Aphrodite. Roman conquerors transported pear seeds throughout Europe on their various expeditions. The most popular varieties of pears today are believed to have originated from south-eastern Europe and western Asia.
Pears were customarily used in Europe not just for enjoying out-of-hand, but were pressed and fermented for production of pear-based alcoholic beverage. Due to the good storage life, they were preserved for winter consumption and grown for livestock feed. Culturally they were commemorated along with the partridge in the Christmas carol The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Pear trees were carried to the New World by the colonists and they thrived until crop blights proved further cultivation useless. In the 1800 the trees were taken to Oregon and Washington by the early pioneers and there they thrived in the unique soil conditions.
Health Benefits of Pears
Pears are considered to be a hypo-allergenic with elevated fibre content, but they are unlikely to create unfavourable reactions. In fact, pear juice is safe enough to be introduced as it is mild and yet provides plenty of nutrients.
Pears contain glutathione which is an antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic, aiding in prevention of high blood pressure and stroke. The vitamin C and copper too act as antioxidants and protect the cell against damage caused by free radicals.
Pears are well known for their pectin content which helps to reduce cholesterol levels and has diuretic characteristics, and a laxative effect. Drinking pear juice on a regular bases helps to regulate bowel movements and consuming the whole fruit provides valuable fibre which benefits colon health. Additionally, the fibre is free of calories and helps in keeping blood sugar levels stable. The juice also provides quick and natural energy due to the quantity of fructose and glucose in the fruit.
The folic acid in pears helps to prevent neural tube defects in pregnant mothers, while the boron is good for retaining calcium in the body thus averting osteoporosis. The antioxidants found in pears are vital for the immune system and also have anti-inflammatory properties which relieve pain due to diseases caused by inflammation. The cooling effects of pears are known to bring down fevers while clearing the phlegm responsible for creating shortness of breath in children.
Drinking pear juice in the summer helps to keep the body cool in the heat and boiling the juice of two pears with some raw honey and consumed raw is good for healing the vocal cords and an irritated throat.
Nutritional Values of Pears
A 100 gram serving of pears contains no fat, cholesterol, a trace of sodium and only 57 calories. It provides 12% of the daily needs of dietary fibre, five percent carbohydrates, 5% vitamin C, almost 4% vitamin K, 1% of each of the following iron, calcium, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), niacin (vitamin B3), vitamin E and zinc. It provides 2% of each of these important nutrients; riboflavin (vitamin B5), vitamin B6, folate (vitamin B9), magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and potassium
Pear skin contains roughly three to four times greater amounts of phenolic phytonutrients as those found in the flesh. Phytonutrients like cinnamic acid potentially have anti-cancer properties while other phytonutrients like flavonoids have anti-inflammation characteristics. The skin also contains roughly half of the total amount of dietary fibre found in pears. As pears become ripe the quantities of antioxidants increase significantly.
Researchers at the University of Innsbruck in Austria discovered that as pears ripen, chlorophyll (responsible for providing pears their dark colour when not ripe) breaks apart into operational antioxidants in the skin and flesh just under it.
Pears are lacking significant amounts the conventional antioxidants like vitamin E or omega-3 fatty acids but they are a powerhouse of phytonutrients. They include Hydroxybenzoic acids, Hydroxycinnamic acids, Hydroxyquinones, Flavanols, Flavonols and Carotenoids.
Uses of Pears
Pears are great for eating out of hand. Make sure they are thoroughly washed and work your way around the core as you would with an apple. Some people do not like the flavour and texture of the skin and prefer to peel and remove it first. It should be noted that a lot of the vital vitamins and minerals (as well as fibre) are also being tossed out. Another option is to chop them and toss them into your morning cereal for a nutritious breakfast.
Poaching is a time tested way of enjoying pears. Poaching entails lightly simmering pears in water or other liquids until they are cooked but retain their shape. Some varieties like Bartletts, Bosc and Comice lend themselves well to cooking since cooking brings out their flavours even more. Depending on individual taste, both wine and juice make good cooking mediums. Microwaving is another method of cooking pears. Peel and cut a pear in half, remove the seeds and the core. Sprinkle with brown sugar and microwave until tender.
Pear juice is a great way to rejuvenate on a hot summer day. To juice, just wash the fruit, cut in half and remove the seed and core. Press through a juicer with skin. If too much core or seeds are left with the fruit when juicing, it will affect the taste and the juice will turn a light brown colour. This is partly due to the seeds and core and partly due to oxidation during juicing. Pear juice is great on its own, but it can also be easily combined with other fruits or vegetables.
One medium sized pear provides fifteen percent of the daily copper needs. Copper is a trace mineral required by the body to maintain a healthy central nervous system. Copper works in the brain to ensure that neural junctions allow signals to pass unhindered. This transfer of signals affects our ability to learn and remember according to studies done by Washington University School of Medicine in Missouuri.
One medium sized pear also delivers eight percent of the daily requirement of vitamin K, which is required for clotting of blood. Mayo Clinic researchers in Minnesota discovered that the risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (immune system cancer), was decreased by forty five percent in patients with greatest vitamin K intake as compared to those with least intake of the vitamin.