Why Eat It
Nutrition Chart

Why Eat It

While rarely consumed on their own, lemons make a major contribution to the flavors of many foods we eat. Although you wouldn't choose this tart citrus fruit for a snack, you might well squeeze some lemon juice over a fish fillet, add a wedge of lemon to your tea, or grate some flavorful lemon zest into your favorite cookie dough. These flavor-packed fruits are loaded with vitamin C, a vitamin whose deficiency can cause scurvy. During the California Gold Rush, scurvy was so rampant, and fresh produce so scarce, that miners were willing to pay $1 for a lemon--over $17 in today's economy (at those rates, a glass of lemonade would cost $35). But it wasn't until vitamin C was discovered in 1932 that scientists understood that it was this vitamin, not the fresh fruit itself, that protected against the disease.

Aside from supplying substantial amounts of vitamin C, the main benefits of lemons relate to their seasoning potential. By adding tart fresh lemon juice and lemon zest to recipes can reduce the amount of salt needed to enhance the flavors in rice, potatoes, salads, and cooked vegetables--while adding no fat and negligible calories.

Lemons probably originated on the Indian subcontinent, and depictions of lemons were found in 2nd- and 3rd-century Roman mosaics. It's likely that lemons were popularized in Europe at the time of the Crusades, and Columbus may have brought the seeds of the fruit to the New World (along with lime seeds) on one of his voyages. Citrus fruits, including lemons and limes, were established in what is now Florida by the 16th century.

Lemons are tropical plants, and, not surprisingly, their growing region in the United States is restricted. Almost all the lemons cultivated in the United States (and nearly a third of all lemons in the world) come from southern California. The industry was established there during the Gold Rush, when lemon trees were planted to offset the shortages of fresh fruits and vegetables. Lemons are also grown in Arizona and Florida.

Frozen and bottled lemon juice, though not as flavorful or nutritious as the fresh-squeezed. Lemons keeps well, so you should always have some in the kitchen.


There are two basic types of lemons--acid and sweet. The acidic types are the most commercially available. The sweet types, such as Meyer lemons, are grown primarily by home gardeners as ornamental fruit, although they are becoming increasingly available in the early spring at some specialty markets. The bulk of acid-type lemons are either Eurekas or Lisbons. They differ somewhat in size, shape, and thickness of peel, but are otherwise basically alike.

Eureka: Eureka lemons are distinguished by a short neck at the stem end. They may have a few seeds and a somewhat pitted, medium-thick skin, and are abundantly juicy.

Lisbon: Lisbons have no distinct neck, but the blossom end tapers to a pointed nipple. They are commonly seedless, with smooth, medium-thick skin; they are very juicy. Florida-grown lemons are likely to be Lisbon-type fruits called "Bearss"--with two s's.


Lemons are harvested year round, with slight seasonal peaks in May, June, and August.


These fruits should be firm, glossy, and bright--beautiful enough to be treated as ornaments for your kitchen. Lemons should be a very bright yellow, not greenish. A very coarse exterior may indicate an excessively thick skin, which in turn may mean less flesh and juice (large lemons are likely to be thick skinned); heavy fruits with fine-grained skin are juiciest. Avoid both hard, shriveled lemons as well as spongy, soft ones.


If you are planning to use lemons quickly, you can leave them in a basket at room temperature; they will keep for about two weeks without refrigeration. Lemons stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper will keep for up to six weeks.

If you have extra lemons on hand and want to save them before they spoil, squeeze the juice into an ice-cube tray, then transfer the frozen juice cubes to a plastic bag.


To get the most juice from a lemon, the fruit should be at room temperature or warmer. Or place it in hot water or a low oven for a few minutes to warm it, or microwave it for 15 to 30 seconds. Then roll the fruit under your palm on the countertop until it feels softened.

There are lots of gadgets for juicing citrus fruits--juicers onto which you press the fruit, reamers you twist into the fruit--but it's simplest to halve the fruit and squeeze it in your hand, using your fingers to hold back the seeds. If you don't need all the juice at once, you can pierce the fruit with a toothpick and squeeze the juice from the opening; "reseal" the fruit by reinserting the toothpick. If you like gadgets, you can purchase a lemon "spigot"--twist it into the fruit, and soon the juice will pour out through the spout, which can be recapped until more juice is needed.

Recipes often call for lemon zest--the flavorful yellow part of the peel. Wash and dry the lemon. Use the fine side of a hand grater, a special zesting tool, a sharp paring knife, or a vegetable peeler to remove the zest carefully so as not to include any of the bitter white pith.

A large lemon will yield about 3 to 4 tablespoons of juice and 2 to 3 teaspoons of zest.

Nutrition Chart

Lemons/1 medium

Total fat (g)
Saturated fat (g)
Monounsaturated fat (g)
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
Dietary fiber (g)
Carbohydrate (g)
Cholesterol (mg)
Sodium (mg)
Vitamin C (mg)

Date Published: 04/20/2005
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