Originally from Central and South America, the incredibly exotic-looking dragon fruit, or pitaya, actually comes from... a cactus! Nowadays, you can easily find it across Southeast Asia and south China, and in large Asian stores in the West. Its spiky red appearance alone instantly attracts attraction, but what health benefits are stored inside?
Once you cut or peel your dragon fruit, you will uncover white or purple pulp with lots of tiny black seeds. The taste is sweet, mild, fresh… and unique. While dragon fruit is not the most caloric among tropical fruits (100 grams contain around 60 kcal), remember that those calories come mainly from fructose; thus, as with all fruit, enjoy it but don’t overdo it!
A Source of Rare Nutrients
Dragon fruit provides several health benefits that make it special.
First of all, dragon fruit seeds are rich in so-called monounsaturated fats, also known as fatty acids or simply “good fats”. They include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are not produced by human body and are essential for prevention of atherosclerosis and heart disease, for preserving good memory and cognitive functions, and for keeping skin and hair healthy. Traditionally, fish has been considered the recommended source of fatty acids, but high levels of mercury and other toxins often found in fish nowadays, plus the fact that omega-3 molecules in fish oil are highly unstable (more details here), make plant foods a better source of omega-3s.
Another nutrient provided by dragon fruit but rarely found in other fruit and vegetables is phosphorous, necessary for the formation of bones and teeth.
Lycopene, a carotenoid that gives red colour to tomatoes and watermelons, is also abundant in dragon fruit. It is supposed to help prevent cancer (especially prostate and breast cancer) and to act as antioxidant, but so far studies have produced mixed results – as with many chemicals contained in tropical fruits, more research on humans is needed (you can read more here.)
Vitamins and Fiber
Dragon fruit is rich in vitamin C – an important antioxidant that can help slower aging and is necessary for forming tendons and healing wounds. However, the traditional belief that vitamin C prevents common cold and other infections has not been proven by science: so far studies only show that it reduces the risk of common cold in people who exercise a lot (read more here.)
Each 100 grams of dragon fruit pulp contain about 1 gram of fiber – carbohydrates that cannot be broken down by our body and instead pass through the small and large intestine undigested. Fiber deficiency is one of the prime causes of constipation; further, it has been shown that a lack of fiber can significantly increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. An adult needs around 20-30 grams of fiber per day. Remember, however, that the more fiber you need, the more water you need to drink.
All in all, pitaya, or dragon fruit, is one of those exotic fruits certainly worth looking out for when on a vacation in the tropics or when exploring your local Thai or Chinese store. While not quite the ‘superfood’ it is sometimes touted to be, it is definitely very good for you; plus, it is absolutely delicious and unique.