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SPRING FRUIT

Apricots are packed with beta carotene, an antioxidant that helps neutralize free radicals that damage cells.

Delicious spring fruit -- strawberries, apricots, mangoes and rhubarb -- is in the market now. This handy guide offers information on picking the best spring fruit and the health benefits of each.

Apricots

Before peaches, plums and berries appear in markets, apricots arrive. Most apricots are destined to be canned or dried, and their season is fleeting, so get fresh ones fast.

What you get: Low in calories and packed with nutrients, just three fresh apricots will give you almost half the vitamin A you need for the day, along with a healthy dose of vitamin C, potassium and fiber. In addition, apricots are packed with beta carotene, an antioxidant that helps neutralize free radicals that damage cells.

Shopping tips: Purchase plump, fairly firm apricots that are orange-yellow to orange. Ripe apricots are soft and juicy -- and should be eaten as soon as possible.

Storage tips: To ripen apricots, place hard fruit in a brown paper bag for one or two days. Ripe apricots should be stored in the refrigerator to prevent overripening. Fresh apricots can be frozen; just halve the fruit, remove the pit and freeze on a baking sheet. Once frozen, place the apricots in a sealable plastic bag.

Mangoes

Mangoes have been integrated into food cultures across the globe -- sold fresh, as juice, in drinks, in curries and in desserts and appetizers.

What you get: The deep orange color of mangoes comes from a high content of beta carotene, a potent anticancer agent. Mangoes also contain vitamin C, fiber, lutein, potassium and zeaxanthin, phytochemicals known to boost the immune system.

Shopping tips: Color is not an indication of ripeness, as mangoes come in many shades of green, yellow and red. Choose mangoes with a slight "give" if you plan to eat them within a day or two, and choose firmer mangoes for enjoying later.

Storage tips: Unripe mangoes will ripen at room temperature. Refrigerate ripe mangoes for up to five days.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb is often called "pie plant" in the U.S. because it's so closely identified with strawberry-rhubarb pie.

What you get: Low in calories and full of fiber, potassium and vitamin C, rhubarb also contains catechin, a flavonol that may contribute to heart health.

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Shopping tip: Look for bright, crisp stalks with minimal pitting, dryness or other visible damage.

Storage tips: Refrigerate rhubarb in a plastic bag for up to a week. Freeze diced rhubarb in an airtight container for up to six months.

Strawberries

Even though they're plentiful in supermarkets year-round, nothing beats the flavor of a juicy, sun-ripened strawberry in season.

What you get: A 1-cup serving of strawberries provides more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin C needs. In addition, strawberries are low in calories and provide plenty of fiber, some potassium and several powerful antioxidants, such as anthocyanin and proanthocyanidins, which promote heart health and may promote optimum brain functioning.

Shopping tips: Strawberries do not ripen further after picking. Therefore, it is important to choose bright red berries, as white- or green-tipped strawberries are lacking in flavor. Don't overlook the little ones -- small strawberries are often sweeter than their big brothers.

Storage tips: Refrigerate strawberries immediately. Wash the berries gently in cool water just before you plan to eat them, leaving the caps on until after they are washed.

(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.)

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