Soft and honey-sweet, figs (Ficus carica) are a flavorful treat few can refuse. Whether fresh or dried, figs make a delightful snack and provide a variety of health benefits ranging from gastrointestinal benefits to antioxidant protection, weight loss and cholesterol-lowering properties. In addition to generous amounts of anthocyanins and polyphenols, figs provide small amounts of all essential nutrients, notably B vitamins, manganese, magnesium, potassium and calcium.
In addition to this, special compounds in the fruit have been shown to be efficient in the treatment of skin problems such as psoriasis. The dietary fiber content of the fruit makes them excellent for promoting digestive health and preventing constipation. Dried figs concentrate even more nutrients than fresh ones and are far more efficient at relieving constipation simply because they concentrate more dietary fiber for the same amount of fruit pulp.
What do figs look like? Figs are 3-5 cm long, round fruit of varying colors. The fruit have a somewhat drooping appearance due to the small stem connecting them to the branches. Each fig fruit has a small opening at the base which allows for the fruit to be pollinated. Unripe figs are hard and bitter and have a pale green skin color. Depending on the variety, ripe figs may range in color from light green to a greenish yellow (often with yellow-brown smudges), yellow-purple, green-purple and dark purple. The flesh of ripe figs may vary from amber to pink tan, a bright reddish-pink, red and purple.
What do figs taste like? Unripe figs have a bland-bitter taste. Ripe figs have a slightly chewy, but soft skin, soft, honey-sweet flesh and crunchy tiny seeds. The riper the fruit, the sweeter its taste. However, bruised fruit or fruit with dark brown smudges, mushy-soft patches and visible skin cracks should be avoided as they will spoil very quickly, if not already unfit for consumption.
How to eat figs. Because figs cease to ripen after being harvested and spoil in a matter of hours or 1-2 days, they must be consumed as soon as possible. They can be eaten whole or their skin can be removed, although the deep purple skin is an incredible source of potent anthocyanin antioxidants. Both fresh and dried figs are great on their own, but will also compliment a variety of dishes, from salads and baked goods to venison, roasted dishes, prosciutto crostini and so on.
Caution. If tore, all the green parts of the fig tree, meaning stems, leaves and unripe fruit, ooze a sort of latex in the form of a white, milky, gluey sap. The sap is a strong skin irritant. When in comes into contact with the skin, it triggers phototoxic reactions such as itching, redness, burning sensation due to the sap containing furocoumarins (psoralen, bergapten) and coumarins (umbelliferone, 4′,5′-dihydropsoralen, marmesin).
In addition to this, fig consumption may trigger allergic reactions in particularly sensitive people, with rare cases of anaphylaxis. So if you know or even suspect you may be allergic to the fruit, it is best to avoid consumption. But what are the benefits of figs? Here are 8 impressive nutrition facts and health benefits of figs:
1) Improve digestion and intestinal transit. Figs provide 2.9 g of dietary fiber for every 100 g of fresh fruit. Dietary fiber not only improves digestion, but also helps relieve constipation by improving intestinal transit time and thus regulating bowel movements.
2) Minimize Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms. Because of their alkaline nature and beneficial action on the digestive system, regulating digestion, gastrointestinal motility and transit time, figs may help minimize Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms as well, provided they are consumed with moderation. Too many fiber-rich foods may trigger adverse reactions such as bloating, gas or cramps.
3) Help lower cholesterol levels and regulate blood pressure. The good amounts of dietary fiber in fresh figs (2.9 g) help reduce the amount of fat our intestines absorb following digestion and thus indirectly lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Moreover, fresh figs are a modest source of both magnesium and potassium. While magnesium helps maintain a healthy heart muscle, potassium regulates body fluids and lowers high blood pressure.
4) Promote weight loss. Fresh figs are a great choice for a dietetic snack or healthy dessert. They contain moderate amounts of natural sugars to satisfy one’s craving for sweets, less calories than regular candy or baked goods (100 g of figs have only 74 kcal, versus 100 g of pastry products which may contain up to 600 kcal or more) and good amounts of dietary fiber which reduces the amount of fats our intestines absorb following digestion.
5) Improve energy levels and may help with morning sickness. Fresh figs contain modest amounts of vitamins and minerals, notably vitamins B6, B5, B1, B2, B3, K, manganese, magnesium, potassium and calcium, which have a wonderful tonic effect on the body and contribute to elevating energy levels. Moreover, fresh figs are a good source of natural sugars (16.26 g) which provide almost instant energy. Due to their honey-sweet taste and restorative properties, figs may help reduce pregnancy-associated morning sickeness.
6) Rich source of antioxidants. According to research, fresh figs are a wonderful source of antioxidant compounds such as the polyphenols chlorogenic acid, gallic acid, rutin, catechin and epicatechin as well as varying levels of anthocyanins, with deep purple fruit having the highest concentration. Moreover, figs have been shown to become in vivo antioxidants following human consumption, meaning the antioxidants they contain become biollogically active after digestion, unlike other fruits whose antioxidants lose efficiency following digestion (Dried fruits: excellent in vitro and in vivo antioxidants).
Antioxidants exhibits a protective action on cells and DNA, preventing free radical damage buildup which may lead to potentially cancerous cell mutations. They also provide other significant health benefits. Chlorogenic acid, for example, is reported to possess blood pressure-lowering properties, while rutin is protects blood vessel integrity.
7) Exhibit anticancer potential. According to the National Center for Biotechnological Information, fig latex has been found to exhibit cytotoxic and inhibitory effects against several cancer cell lines (Suppressors of cancer cell proliferation from fig (Ficus carica) resin: isolation and structure elucidation, October 2012). Another study from December 2012 (The Effect of Fig Tree Latex (Ficus carica) on Stomach Cancer Line) shows that the proteolytic enzymes in figs latex, namely ficin, have a cytotoxic and inhibitory effect on stomach cancer cell lines without affecting healthy cells.
However, despite studies suggesting that the coumarins constituents in figs (notably psoralen) might help treat melanoma, research proves conflicting as opposing studies reveal that the coumarin psoralen may actually increase the risk for melanona. Psoralen as well as other furocoumarins increase the skin’s sensitivity to light (hence their use in tanning products) but, at the same time, possess photocarcinogenic properties, meaning they are cancer-causing agents in the presence of light (so watch out for those fig-something face masks).
8) Used for treating psoriasis and other skin conditions. UV light therapy makes use of the sensitising effects of psoralen to make psoriasis, eczema, cutaneous T-cell lymphoma and other skin disorders sensitive enough to fail to withstand treatment (Andrews’ Diseases of the Skin: clinical Dermatology). UV light therapy is performed in a controlled environment so as to reduce the photocarcinogenic properties of furocoumarins as much as possible, minimizing side effects.