Pitaya commonly referred to as Dragon Fruit is considered one of nature’s most amazing creations. A member of the cactus species, the pitaya has a succulent stem, beautiful luminous flowers that give the impression of exploding flames and produces delicious fruit that resembles a rosebud. The dragon fruit is indigenous to Central America although several Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand have commercialized its production. As with other cactuses, the pitaya plant thrives in arid areas.
The dragon fruit resembles a soft pineapple and has spikes growing out of its red, pink, or yellow skin. The dragon fruit also has scale-like or overlaid leaves that look like the artichoke. Inside, the dragon fruit is moist with a crunchy texture and contains a lot of small black edible seeds. Its flavor feels like a mix of pear and kiwi fruit- mildly sweet.
Trying the dragon fruit for the first time may feel a little intimidating but it is really easy to prepare. Use a knife to slice the fruit lengthwise so as to expose the inside. At this point, you can choose to remove the flesh or proceed to slice it further into quarters noting to peel off the rubbery skin. The pink part of the fruit tends to be bitter so it is best to separate it from the sweeter white flesh that contains the seeds and discard it.
What Studies Say About Dragon Fruit
Several studies have been conducted to determine the role of the dragon fruit in enhancing overall health and well-being. In a 2011 study by the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, researchers reviewed the relationship between oxidative DNA damage associated with prostate cancer and a lifetime physical activity that includes also includes a healthy diet containing vegetables and fruits.
They concluded that exercise and a fruit and vegetable rich diet, especially one that contained Lycopene such as dragon fruit provided protection against the disease.
Drug Metabolism and Disposition published a study in 2004 whose aim was to find out more about the impact of tropical fruits such as dragon fruit on health because prior to the study there was limited information on them. The results of the study were positive as researchers found out that the dragon fruit and other tropical have the capacity to hinder the action of human cytochrome P450.
The human cytochrome P450 is mostly found in the liver but can also appear in other tissues including the lungs, kidneys and small intestines. Mutations of this substance have been linked with the development of congenital glaucoma.
History of Dragon Fruit
The dragon fruit is definitely an exotic fruit that originated from Southeast Asia. It belongs to the cactus family which would explain its spiky outer layer. The plant that produces the dragon fruit is identical to a climbing vine and thrives in dry areas.
Non-parasitic (epiphyte) in nature, the dragon fruit flourishes in the good organic soil. It produces large and elaborate white flowers. When in bloom, these flowers produce a sweet fragrance that is easy to miss because this event occurs once and only during the night. Pollination is aided by moths and bats and up to six fruit-producing cycles can occur annually.
The appearance of the fruit can be rather daunting at first glance but it peels pretty easily. The shape of the fruit is usually elliptical, oval or pear-shaped while its taste can be sweet and in some cases sour. The inside of the fruit is mostly white or red dotted with sesame-looking seeds that bear the same crunch as kiwi seeds.
Although the fruit is native to Central America, today’s supply mainly comes from South Florida, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Malaysia, and Taiwan. In Mexico, it’s known as Pitahaya while those in Northern South America and Central America refer to is a Pitaya Roja. Pitahaya is the Spanish word for Central America’s fruiting vines.
It’s said that the dragon fruit may have been first introduced in Vietnam over a century ago by the French. The Aztec literature claims that this indigenously Central American fruit has been around from as far back as the 13th century. It is also thought to have been introduced to Colombia and Nicaragua while others suggest that in 1870it was brought from Guyana, South America as an ornamental fruit because of its large flowers. The dragon fruit has earned nicknames such as ‘lady of the night’ or ‘Moonflower’ because of its distinctive nighttime blooming. The genus name for the dragon fruit is Hylocereus derived from cereus or Latin word cera which means “torch-like” or “wax”
It was not too long before the dragon fruit gained popularity in Vietnam due to its deliciousness and this encouraged the Vietnamese to cultivate it. The white flesh variety, in particular, is considered indigenous to Vietnam. Its genus name is Hylocereus undatus and the Vietnamese refer to it as Thanh Long or Blue Dragon. Eventually was commercially grown (in Vietnam) and became a profit-producing crop. As recently as 1999, the fruit was introduced to the Johor, Sitiawan and Kuala Pilah regions of Malaysia with Nicaragua and Colombia growing it commercially. This clearly proves that the dragon fruit thrives in warmer climates. Currently, the fruit is exported throughout Southeast Asia with its popularity increasing in countries like New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and Hawaii. In addition to being eaten fresh or dried, dragon fruit is also used to flavor to wines, juices, and medicine.
No known side effects have so far been linked with the dragon fruit, however, if you experience any side effects after consuming the fruit, it is best to stay away from it.
How Does Dragon Fruit Taste?
The dragon fruit can come across as bland in taste. It has a mildly sweet and subtle taste. Some varieties of the fruit, such as the red colored one, do have a tangy flavor.
Dragon Fruit Varieties
The dragon fruit has three distinctive varieties differentiated by the colors of their skin and flesh i.e. red skin and white flesh, red skin and red flesh and lastly yellow skin and white flesh. Depending on the species, size and shape dragon fruits can be sweet or sour. The most common type of dragon fruit is red in color, a little smaller than a cantaloupe and is covered with broad prickly growths.
When sliced open, the dragon fruit has a texture that is similar to a kiwi fruit and its flesh is packed with small black seeds which aid digestion. The flesh has several uses which include making wine or be sieved into other beverages. You can also steep dragon fruit leaves produce a very healthy cup of tea. Very little nutritional value is attributed to the outer skin and it is rarely eaten.
The seeds of an unblemished and overripe fruit can be separated from the pulp. Thoroughly cleaned and dried before storage.
The seeds grow well in manure or potting soil mix and can also be grown as potted indoor plants. The seeds usually germinate within 14 days of shallow planting. Being a member of the cactus family, homeowners find overwatering a major concern. As the plants continue to grow, they will look for something to climb. These climbing plants also put down aerial roots from the branches over and above basal roots. Flowering may occur once the plant attains a mature weight of 10 months.
The range of 1100 and 1350 cacti per hectare is an ideal density for commercial planting. The pitaya takes around five years to reach full commercial production and at this stage, they will yield 20 to 30 of fruit per hectare.
The one-time overnight blooming affair of the pitaya flowers usually sees them wilted by morning. Bats and moths are relied on as primary pollinators. Self-fertilization can occur however it in some species it does not produce any fruit. Cross-breeding has brought about several ‘self-fertile’ varieties. Generally, cross-pollination with another plant species increases quality and fruit set. The capability of home growers to produce fruit becomes quite limited because of this. That said, the plants can will flower up to six times in any given year depending on growing conditions. As with every other cactus, if a healthy part of the stem breaks off and takes root in the soil, it will grow and become its own plant.
Temperature wise, the pitaya can withstand up to 40 °C (104 °F) and short periods on the front. They will not, however, survive exposure to freezing temperatures over a long period of time. USDA zones 10-11 will see the cacti thrive and they can endure outdoors in 9a or 9b zone.
Hylocereus has adapted to growing in dry tropical climates that experience moderate amounts of rain. 30-50 days after flowering, the dragon fruit will set in on the cactus-like trees and can have 5-6 harvest cycles annually. There are numerous regions where it grows as a weed and in some countries, it’s even categorized as an invasive weed.
Dragon fruit is an excellent source of Iron and Vitamin C and contains small quantities of several other nutrients.
For a serving of 3.5 or 100gram, below are the nutritional facts:
- Calories: 52
- Carbs: 11 grams
- Fats: 0.4grams
- Fiber : 3 grams
- Iron: 10.6% of RDI
- Protein : 1.1 gram
- Riboflavin: 2.9% of RDI
- Thiamine: 2.7% of RDI
- Vitamin C: 34% of RDI
*RDI stands for Recommended Dietary Intake
The pitaya fruit is considered a highly nutrient-dense fruit given the tremendously low-calorie content and high amount of vitamin C and fiber.
The dragon fruit contains numerous antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that shield cells from free radicals (unstable molecules) associated with chronic diseases and aging.
Some of the antioxidants found in the pulp include:
- Betalains:These are deep red pigments that have been proven to safeguard LDL cholesterol from getting damaged or damaged.
- Flavonoids:these are a diverse group of antioxidants associated with better brain health and decreased risk of heart disease.
- Hydroxycinnamates:these compounds have exuded anti-cancer activity both in animal studies and in test-tubes.
A study was carried out with the aim of comparing anti-oxidant properties of 17 tropical berries and fruits.
The dragon fruit’s antioxidant capacity did not rank as high as that of many other fruits, however, it was found to have the best safeguarding properties for keeping certain fatty acids safe from free radical damage.
Dragon Fruit Health Benefits
The benefits of the dragon fruit are many including boosting immunity, providing a smoother digestive process and increasing the rate of metabolism. A lot of these benefits are attributed to the dragon fruit’s antibacterial, nutritional and antioxidant properties. We will explore these benefits in detail.
Boosts Immunity. The dragon fruit is one of the best providers of Vitamin C foods around beating even carrots. Dragon fruit contains flavonoids and flu-fighting vitamin C which help strengthen your immune system. It also contains high levels of antioxidants which help keep free radicals at bay. These are backed up by Vitamins B1, B2, and B3 alongside iron, protein, calcium, niacin, phosphorous and fiber which work together to ensure your immune system stays in tip-top shape.
The impressive micronutrients in the dragon fruit were made clear in a study carried out by the Journal of Food Science. The study sought to find out the effect of polyphenol and flavonoid content found in extracts from the peel and flesh of the red and white dragon fruit on several cancer cells. Both peel and flesh extract showed anticancer activities. They also revealed a direct link between the antioxidant effect and phenolic content implying that the extracts could be a useful ingredient in foods, nutraceuticals, and cosmetics as well as in pharmaceutical applications. All this is possible due to the dragon fruit’s immune-boosting abilities.
Prevents Anemia. Anyone suffering from anemia can benefit greatly from the found in dragon fruit which boosts hemoglobin levels. It also assists in the productions of RBCs (red blood cells) which then ensure proper oxygenation of all vital organs.
Detoxification. Dragon fruit is rich in antioxidants that aid the detoxification process by flushing out toxins and other waste metals from the system; aiding weight loss
Rich in Vitamins. Dragon fruit is full of vitamins such as the vitamin B group and vitamin C. Vitamins B1, B2 and B3 are responsible for improved cholesterol levels, blood pressure, skin health, thyroid function, carbohydrate metabolism and fluctuating hemoglobin levels.
Aids in Digestion. The fiber in dragon fruit aids in bowel movement and helps eliminate IBS issues as well as constipation. 100gms of fresh dragon fruit contains approximately one gram of fiber while a similar quantity of the dried fruit contains 10grams. Consumption of the pitaya skin can provide additional fiber.
Gut health and digestion receive a further boost from the presence of oligosaccharides in the dragon fruit which work as prebiotics.
Prebiotics do more than this, as the research carried out by journal 3 Biotech found. The published research indicated that introducing functional compounds such as prebiotics into one’s diet is a much more attractive substitute to improving the quality of life that is ridden with cancer, obesity, vascular diseases, hypersensitivity and degenerative ailments.
Prevents Cancer. Dragon fruit also contains phytoalbumin and combined with all other minerals including Vitamin C makes this fruit highly valuable for its cancer-preventing qualities as well as its antioxidant properties. Lycopene present in the fruit also fights cancer. Studies have indicated that lycopene contains ‘chemopreventive’ effects for breast, lung, liver, prostate and skin cancer. Tomatoes also contain lycopene which offers the rich color.
Nutrition and Cancer also published a study that stated that when treated, the Lycopene cancerous cells reduced significantly and had difficulty living. Evaluation of Ovarian cancer following lycopene treatment shows a decrease in the number of cancerous cells. Seeing as how the dragon fruit contains lycopene, it can serve as a potential cancer-fighting food.
Controls Diabetes. The fiber in dragon fruit not only helps with digestion but also helps stabilize blood sugar and maintaining normal sugar levels in the blood. Consumption of high glycemic index foods can lead to a spike in blood sugar and the dragon fruit can help prevent this from occurring. Journal of Pharmacognosy Research conducted research on dragon fruit in relation to diabetes. The tested subjects showed encouraging results on the oxidative strain which suggest that eating the dragon fruit may reduce some of the problems linked to diabetes. Further research carried out on obese mice to study how the fruit benefits insulin resistance established that consuming the dragon fruit can help minimize the risk of diabetes and diabetic symptoms.
Skin Care. Looking for a youthful appearance? Trying making dragon fruit part of your diet. The antioxidants present in dragon fruit don’t just keep the inside of your body in tip-top shape; they are excellent for your skin too. The Vitamin C in the antioxidants helps keep the skin firm and tight.
About 1 percent of a person’s total body weight is made up of phosphorus because this mineral is found in each and every cell. Phosphorus is responsible for repairing body cells, which is crucial to retaining youthful skin and preventing premature aging. Guess which fruit contains this anti-aging mineral? Dragon fruit!
Antibacterial Properties. Dragon fruit contains antibacterial and antifungal properties which help raise the WBC (white blood cell) count in your body. WBC are fighter-cells which defend the body against toxins and hinder the entrance or growth of bacterial or fungal infections in the organs. Dragon fruit also accelerates the regeneration of cells and hastens healing ensuring that bruises and wounds heal faster.
Boosts Metabolism. Dragon fruit also contains protein which is vital to a healthy functioning of the human body. Enzymes in our bodies metabolize proteins turning them into usable proteins which enhance strength and overall metabolism, speed up cell repair, increase muscle mass and aid in weight loss.
Improves Cardiovascular Health. The above-mentioned study by Journal of Pharmacognosy Research also evaluated the effects of the dragon fruit on the heart. It is estimated that around 175 million people die every year from heart problems. Cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease account for around 31 percent of all known deaths around the world. These numbers are astounding.
The said study demonstrated that the dragon fruit is a brilliant cholesterol-lowering food. It helps reduce bad cholesterol and improves good cholesterol. Dragon fruit is also a superb source of monounsaturated fats and helps the heart stay in good condition.
In addition to this, the little black seeds found in the dragon fruit are packed with omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids which can cut problematic triglycerides thereby bringing down the chances of a person developing cardiovascular disease.
Hair Care. Healthy and well-nourished hair can come from eating dragon fruit. The fruit treats hair that has been damaged by chemicals found in artificial hair color. It also helps enrich the texture of your hair and makes it glossy.
Anti-Inflammatory Properties. Anti-inflammatory properties present in dragon fruit can help lessen pain brought about by arthritis.
Eye Care. As mentioned above, dragon fruit is known to prevent the advancement of human cytochrome P450 which is a protein that is often associated with the development of congenital glaucoma. Macular degeneration and cataract formation are kept at bay through consumption this fruit known to protect our bodies from harmful free radicals.
Strong Bones and Teeth. The dragon fruit has high calcium content which enriches the bone-mineral density and keeps your bones healthy. Calcium also strengthens your gums, reduces the fragility of teeth and keeps them intact; giving you the confidence to flash that smile!
Pregnancy. Dragon fruit is rich in iron, folate and B vitamins making it extremely beneficial to pregnant women. Iron prevents anemia and hemoglobin deficiency while the folate and B vitamins boost energy and prevent birth defects. The mildly laxative properties found in dragon fruit regulate bowel movement and help loosen stool. Furthermore, the calcium present in the fruit aids fetal bone development which leads to an overall healthy pregnancy.
Boosts Cognition. The Vitamin B group and vitamin C present in dragon fruit help keep cell membranes healthy. The activity of these vitamins in the body keeps the brain functioning well and prevents cognitive disorders.
Improves Respiration. Anyone suffering from asthma and other respiratory disorders should include dragon fruit in their diet. The wonderful vitamin C helps treat lung problems and allowing you to enjoy the all the fragrances nature provides.
Healthy Snack. Before reaching for that bag of chips, consider the healthy snack that is the dragon fruit. This delicious fruit can be eaten by both children and adults.
Dragon Fruit Side Effects
In general, the dragon fruit is safe, however, there are cases where people develop an allergic reaction.
There are two cases where women without any history of allergic reactions to food suffered anaphylactic reactions after they consumed dragon fruit in a fruit mixture. After testing was done, it was established that they both had antibodies against the fruit.
It is likely that other people may have suffered allergic reactions but are not aware of it. The above-mentioned cases are the two reported cases.
Choosing and Storing Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit season peaks in summer and lasts all the way to early autumn, however, this gnarly looking fruit can be found all year long in produce markets. To select a ripe dragon fruit always look for skin that is bright and even-colored. Skins that have a blemish here and there are all right however if the fruit has several blotches it is probably overripe.
Hold the fruit in the palm of your hand and press it with your thumb or fingers. The skin should give in a little but should not be too mushy or too soft. If the fruit is very firm, it will need a few days to ripen.
Storing Dragon Fruit
Ripe dragon fruit can last a few days with refrigeration. If you want to keep it longer than seal it in a plastic bag and store it in the fridge. Dragon fruit picks ups flavors and odors of other foods which can be quite unpleasant, that is why they are stored in sealed plastics bags.
For your fruit to last longer, do not cut it unless you are ready to eat it. Like most fruits, once you cut it, is important to store it in an airtight container and refrigerate it. Depending on how ripe it was, the fruit may stay fresh for one day or last a little longer. If the flesh starts changing color and becomes brown/feels mushy, then it is time to throw it out.
Cutting the Dragon Fruit
The dragon fruit cuts easily, exposing either white or red flesh that is full of tiny edible black seeds. The flesh of the dragon fruit resembles that of the kiwi fruit.
- Lay the fruit on a clean cutting board or another surface
- Using a sharp knife slice the fruit from the middle downwards
- You can then separate the fruit into two sections
- You can choose to slice the fruit further, if you want, in a similar fashion
Separating the Flesh from the Skin
Removing the dragon fruit flesh from its skin is similar to how we remove the avocado flesh from its skin. Keep in mind the skin is not edible.
- Run a spoon around the edges of the piece to part the flesh from the skin
- Carefully raise the flesh up from the skin and put it on the cutting board or another surface
- Set aside the skin for dishing up, if desired
As with the avocado, there are dragon fruit fans out there that will easily devour the flesh straight from the skin. The skin is the perfect container for this type of snack. Pick up your spoon and dig in.
Slicing the Dragon Fruit
Now that you have separated the skin from the flesh, gently turn the soft mass of flesh around to ensure there is no residual pink skin. If you come across any skin, gently slice it off because ingesting the skin is not healthy.
With all the skin gone, cut the flesh into cubes any other way that pleases you. If you have a melon baller at hand, get creative and use it scoop out the flesh. It forms little balls that will make your snack fun and great to nibble on.
How to Enjoy a Fresh Dragon Fruit
To add a bit of creativity, you can return chopped cubes into the skin shell before serving. Alternatively, you can place the fruit in a serving dish and simply enjoy. Fresh fruit salad served tropical Thai twist style can taste even better with a couple of dragon fruit cubes added to it. You can also turn it into a sauce or have it as a syrup that can be drizzled over desserts or simply add the fruit to a fruit salsa for that summer delight.
Dragon fruits are the perfect side dish for fish dishes more specifically tuna, cod, and mahi-mahi. You can serve it whole on the side or make a sauce to be drizzled over you fish or add the fruit to chunky salsa.
As far as the drinks go, you can use a juicer to make dragon fruit juice or create a smoothie out of it. Dragon fruits also make a mean martini, so ahead and try it.
Once you discover the taste of dragon fruit, you will come up with so many other ways to enjoy it. You can have fun with it as you tweak your favorite recipes around it. Since the dragon fruit pairs well with so many tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango, and papaya among others, tweak, twist and enjoy.