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One of the great joys of summer is eating fruit. In the northern latitudes, berries, peaches, apricots, and melons ripen in the warm sun, and we can buy them at farmers’ markets and roadside stands fresh off the farm.
Eating fruit is essential to maintaining health. People who include generous amounts of fruit in their diet – four or more servings per day – have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. Unfortunately, Americans average less than one serving per day, usually in the form of apples, bananas, or orange juice, which are among the least nutritious of the options available to us.
There are hundreds of varieties of fruit eaten around the world, most of them grown in tropical climates, but relatively few are widely available in the United States. Here’s a guide to varieties of tropical fruit you are likely to find in your local supermarket or coop.
Dragonfruit and its close relative pitaya are the fruit of several cactus species indigenous to the Americas. Deriving its name, no doubt, from its scary scale-like skin, the fruit has a sweet white flesh that is rich in Vitamin C, iron and calcium, and low in calories. The U.S. Department of Agriculture only recently started allowing dragonfruit into the country. We can now take advantage of its exotic flavor and high nutrition.
The fig is one of our oldest cultivated fruits; fossilized remnants have been found in Paleolithic sites in Jordan dating from 11,000 years ago. The plant is cultivated in warm climates throughout the world, as well as appearing in the wild. Although commonly referred to as a fruit, the fig is actually a hollow-ended stem containing many flowers. The small orifice visible in the middle of the fruit is a narrow passage which allows a specialized wasp to enter the fruit and pollinate the flower. Although dried figs are available throughout the year, there is nothing like the unique taste and texture of fresh figs. California figs are available from June through September; some European varieties are available through autumn. Figs are an excellent source of fiber and minerals.
Guava refers to a number of common fruits cultivated and enjoyed in the tropics. The one most often found in North American supermarkets is the Psidium guajava. Guavas probably originated in the Carribean — the name appears to derive from guayabo, the Arawak name for the fruit. Because of guava’s excellent nutritional profile, it is often called a “super fruit.” Compared to the same amount of pineapple, guavas contain five times the vitamin C and four times the fiber. Guavas also contain generous amounts of vitamin A, folate, flavonoids, and lycopene. The flavor is delicate — something between a pear and a strawberry.
The jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is a species of tree in the mulberry family native to Southeast Asia. The fruit is enormous, roughly the size of a watermelon, and a single tree can produce 100 to 200 fruits in a year. Moreover, unlike popular crops like wheat, rice and corn which need lots of irrigation and pesticides, the jackfruit tree thrives with little attention. Because of its amazing productivity, governments and universities around the world are encouraging farmers and entrepreneurs to invest in the export potential of this crop. Nutritionally, the jackfruit is often eaten as a meat substitute. It is one of the few fruits rich in the B-complex group of vitamins: pyridoxine, niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid. It is also higher in protein than other fruit. The flesh of the jackfruit is starchy, fibrous, and slightly sweet. I enjoy eating it with barbecue sauce on a taco.
The kiwi is a berry with a soft texture and a sweet but unique flavor. It is widely grown commercially in Mexico and the Mediterannean. The fruit has fascinated researchers for its ability to protect DNA in the nucleus of human cells from oxygen-related damage. Researchers are not yet certain which compounds in kiwi give it this protective antioxidant capacity, but they are sure that this healing property is not limited to its high vitamin C or beta-carotene content. Since kiwi contains a variety of flavonoids and carotenoids that have demonstrated antioxidant activity, these phytonutrients in kiwi may be responsible for the DNA protection.
By far the most popular fruit in the world, the mango is sometimes referred to as “the king of fruits.” Native to South Asia and grown commercially throughout the tropics, the mango has five times the vitamin C of oranges. According to numerous research studies, the polyphenolic antioxidant compounds in mangos offer protection against cancers of the breast, skin, colon, and prostate. Mangos are used in a wide variety of dishes, including desserts, chutneys, and pickles. I like to put them in my smoothies.
The papaya (known as pawpaw in the Southern United States) is native to the tropics and subtropics of the Americas, growing wild as far north as the Carolinas. It was first cultivated in Mexico several centuries before the emergence of the Mesoamerican classical civilizations. The papaya is a large, tree-like plant, with a single stem growing from 5 to 10 m (16 to 33 ft) tall, with spirally arranged leaves confined to the top of the trunk. Since ripe papayas are yellow and orange with brown recessed splotches, the rule I use in shopping is to buy the ugliest one I can find. Besides being an excellent source of antioxidants and lycopene, papaya is the only known source of papain, an enzyme which helps the body metabolize fat.
Star fruit (also known as carambola) is popular throughout Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. The tree is also commercially cultivated in the Americas. The fruit has distinctive ridges running down its sides; in cross-section, it resembles a star, hence its name. The entire fruit is edible, and its skin is especially rich in nutrients. Among its many health benefits, starfruit is an excellent source of flavonoids, which are antioxidants essential for cancer protection. The flavor is slightly sour, often compared to the taste of apple, pear, grape, or citrus.
For an annotated list of hundreds of types of fruit eaten around the world, see fruitsinfo.com.
Copyright 2016 Michael Simms.