The Health Benefits of Lemons Are Far from Sour
Pucker up, lemon lovers! Beyond their mood-boosting yellow hue and sour flavor, lemons are teeming with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and more. They can also be used in myriad delicious ways — and not just as a seasoning or garnish, too. Ahead, lemon nutrition facts, health benefits of lemons, and creative ways to eat them.
What Are Lemons?
A type of citrus fruit (à la orange and grapefruit), lemon thrives in warmer climates, such as the Mediterranean and Florida, and peaks during winter months, according to Michigan State University. Oh, and get this: Lemons are botanically classified as berries, according to a 2020 article in the journal Plants.
The fruit grows in a range of sizes, shapes, and colors, but two of the most common varieties are Lison and Eureka lemons, both of which have a bright yellow peel and flesh, according to Charmaine Jones, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Food Jonezi. The pulp (read: fibrous insides) and juice of lemons are edible. The same goes for the rind, though it's often as a zest or as a preserve (e.g., candied, pickled) first.
Lemon Nutrition Facts
For a fairly small fruit, lemons are loaded with nutrients, including bone-strengthening calcium, mood-boosting magnesium, and muscle-supporting potassium. The pulp, juice, and peel contain flavonoids and vitamin C — two superstar antioxidants that are responsible for many of lemon's nutritional benefits, according to a 2021 article. What's more, lemon pulp in particular is packed soluble fiber, which is essential for healthy digestion, carbohydrate absorption, and management of blood cholesterol, according to Annamaria Louloudis, M.S., C.D.N., a registered dietitian at Culina Health.
Here's the nutritional profile of one raw lemon without the peel (~84 grams), according to the United States Department of Agriculture:
- 24 calories
- <1 gram protein
- <1 gram fat
- 8 grams carbohydrate
- 2 grams fiber
- 2 grams sugar
Health Benefits of Lemons
When it comes to nutrition, the yellow fruit doesn't disappoint — and the same is true for lemon's health benefits.
Supports Immune Function
When it comes to citrus fruits, oranges often steal the spotlight for their impressive vitamin C content. But with 53 milligrams of the nutrient per 100-gram serving of raw, peeled lemon, these yellow orbs deserve plenty of attention, too. After all, they have just as much vitamin C as 100 grams of their orange cousins — and that's without the peel (which, BTW, boasts 129 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams, according to the USDA).
Now, here's why this is important: Vitamin C is often regarded as the holy grail for healthy immune function — and for good reason, too. "Vitamin C [helps create] white blood cells, which produce antibodies," explains Louloudis. Antibodies are proteins that recognize harmful germs (e.g. viruses and bacteria) in the blood and destroy them, according to National Center for Biotechnology Information. This, in turn, helps keep your immune system strong and able to fight off foreign pathogens.
Staves Off Diseases
Again, lemon pulp, juice, and peel are teeming with vitamin C and flavonoids, two potent antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, says Louloudis. This is worth noting because free radicals are unstable molecules that, in excess, can trigger oxidative stress, thereby increasing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. So, with its sky-high content of vitamin C and flavonoids, lemons are sure to help keep illnesses at bay. (See also: The Important Health Perks of Flavonoids)
Promotes Digestive Health
The soluble fiber found in lemon pulp feeds the "good" bacteria in your gut, explains Isa Kujawski, M.P.H., R.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Mea Nutrition. With proper nourishment from soluble fiber, these microbes can properly reduce inflammation in your stomach and aid in digestion, says Kujawski. "Soluble fiber is also dissolvable in water, meaning it bulks up stool and promotes regular bowel movements," she adds. This is stellar news if you're prone to constipation, but keep in mind that this gut-friendly nutrient is found in the pulp, rather than the juice itself. Meaning, you have to eat the whole lemon — almost as if you'd eat an orange — to really reap the gut-helping nutrients in the pulp.
Protects the Heart
The perks of lemon pulp's soluble fiber don't stop there: It also "supports healthy [blood] cholesterol levels by lowering the amount of cholesterol that's absorbed into the bloodstream," says Kujawski. This is particularly beneficial for your ticker, as high blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What's more, the whole fruit (read: juice, pulp, and rind) also contains citric acid, a compound that promotes the absorption of magnesium and calcium, notes Jones. Both of these minerals are essential for managing blood pressure, according to Oregon State University — and the more stable (and lower) your BP, the less likely your risk for developing a cardiac condition. Even the vitamin C in lemons can lend a hand in keeping your heart healthy. A 2017 study found that it can reduce high blood pressure by stopping the breakdown of nitric acid, a compound in your cells that, according to a 2018 article, has a relaxing effect on blood vessels, thus improving blood flow and reducing BP. (BTW, these are the most common causes of high blood pressure.)
Aids Iron Absorption
The vitamin C in lemon is the perfect partner for iron-rich foods. That's because vitamin C improves iron absorption, which is a BFD because iron is essential for creating hemoglobin, the oxygen-transporting protein in red blood cells, explains Jones. In the body, "vitamin C combines with iron to [create] an iron chelate complex," she says. This form of iron (vs. the type naturally found in food) is more soluble, meaning it will be better absorbed by the small intestine.
This is especially noteworthy if you follow a vegetarian, vegan, or pescatarian diet, as these eating styles mainly consist of non-heme iron, which is found in plant foods and is harder for the body to absorb, explains Jones. (On the other hand, heme iron is found in animal sources such as and is more readily absorbed on its own, says Jones.) That said, eating lemons and iron-rich plant foods can promote better absorption of non-heme iron, thus preventing iron deficiency or anemia, says Jones. (Related: The Best Foods to Eat Together for Nutrient Absorption)
Potential Risks of Lemons
Lemons are super acidic, so you'll want to avoid them if you're prone to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), aka acid reflex, says Louloudis. That's because acidic foods can relax your lower esophagus, allowing stomach juices to flow back up and ultimately causing or worsening GERD symptoms such as regurgitation and heartburn, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. The acidity of lemons can also erode tooth enamel, potentially increasing the risk of tooth decay. Finally, the fruit contains tyramine, a natural compound that may trigger headaches in people who are prone to migraines, adds Kujawski. If you think lemons (or any other food, for that matter) are causing your headaches, chat with your doc; they can help pinpoint the culprit and determine your specific triggers.
How to Buy, Store, and Use Lemons
If you've been to the supermarket recently (or even ordered from a grocery delivery service), you're likely well aware that lemons are often in stock as fresh fruit. But they're also found as an ingredient in jams, snacks, frozen meals, and tea (Buy It, $23 for six boxes, amazon.com). Lemon juice, in particular, is commonly used in products such as salad dressings, sauces, and drinks, such as, you guessed it, lemonade. (Head's up, though: Store-bought lemonade can often be loaded with sugar, so consider DIY-ing, especially if you're watching your intake of the sweet stuff.) You can also buy bottled lemon juice (Buy It, $5, amazon.com) on its own, which is undeniably convenient — though it may contain less vitamin C, as industrial processing diminishes the nutrient, according to the aforementioned 2020 article.
When buying raw, whole lemons look for those that have a bright, yellow color, smooth peel, and firm texture, which are signs that they're fresh, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). Avoid the fruits that are squishy or have discolored spots, says Jones, as these can hint at spoilage. Once home, you can keep unwashed lemons at room temp on the counter (and enjoy all-natural kitchen décor) for about one week, according to Michigan State University. Otherwise, store them in a plastic bag in your refrigerator's crisper drawer, where they'll last for up to six weeks, according to UNL.
Before using a raw lemon, rinse it well to rid the fruit of any residual dirt or pesticides. Then, slice it into rounds or wedges, the latter of which can be squeezed to release the juice for recipes or used as a garnish for finished dishes. To juice a lemon, squeeze half a lemon (or a wedge) with your hands or use a citrus squeezer (Buy It, $25, amazon.com) for a less messy method. Another option is to use the lemon for its zest, aka the thin outer portion of the lemon rind, which you can achieve by scrapping the fruit against a grater (Buy It, $10, amzon.com), according to the Culinary Institute of America. This part is usually used as a garnish or seasoning, as it has a wonderfully deep citrus flavor.
Ultimately, lemons are perfect for adding an extra oomph to sweet and savory recipes alike. Still not sure how to use the fruit? When life hands you lemons, here are some tasty ways to use them:
As lemon chips. Yep, it's a thing. Simply bake thinly sliced lemons until crispy, then enjoy them as you would other crispy snacks. (This can also be a delicious way to get any of the nutrients out of the pulp and rind if you're not fond of biting right into the sour fruit.)
In baked goods. If you've jumped on the breadmaking train, you'll want to try this lemon and thyme hearth bread. You can also whip up a batch (...or two) of coconut lemon cookies, which are gluten-free, vegan, and sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.
In a chicken entrée. Louloudis is all about lemon chicken and potatoes — a classic, comforting dish that also makes eating whole lemons easier. Put a whole chicken in a deep baking pan, then place veggies (think: Russet potatoes, onions, carrots, and celery) around the bird. "Add herbs and seasoning (of your choice) and about an inch of water over the veggies," she says. Next, stuff the lemon rind inside the chicken, pour the juice and pulp over everything, and bake at 375° F until the chicken has reached an internal temp of 165° F.