Dragon fruit: What are the health benefits?
The exotic, beautiful dragon fruit, also known as pitaya, comes from a cactus, but what do we really know about this sweet and juicy fruit?
The dragon fruit plant Hylocereus species originates from tropical Central America - pitaya is from its Spanish name - and was imported to Vietnam in the 20th century. In Vietnam, it is known as thanh long, or 'dragon's eyes', due to its shape being similar to the eyes of the country's mythological creature. It is now also cultivated in Australia, Thailand, Taiwan and parts of China.
Being a type of cactus, the plant has spines rather than leaves and produces egg-shaped fruit 10-15cm long, 7-10cm wide and weighing on average 350g. The thin, leathery, often red-tinged skin consists of soft scales pointing towards the end of the fruit. The juicy white flesh inside is filled with small black seeds. Both flesh and seeds are eaten, much like a kiwi fruit. The fruit has a sweet-sour taste that is described as being pleasant and mild. There are also pink and red-fleshed varieties. A yellow-skinned variety developed in Israel produces smaller but sweeter fruits. The fruit has spines until it is ripe and they drop off.
What are the health benefits?
Dragon fruit can be part of a healthy balanced diet providing one of your 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. The fruit provides a number of key nutrients, including vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium and fibre, and is a source of protein, magnesium and omega fatty acids. A small 200g fruit has only 59 calories and 0.4g total fat.
The fruit is rich in fibre and low in calories, with one small fruit providing around 13g of sugar.
In addition to vitamin C, dragon fruit are rich in plant antioxidant betalains and polyphenols which contribute to the health benefits of fruit and vegetables.
What are the best ways to eat the fruit?
When choosing a dragon fruit, look for one that has bright, evenly coloured skin. A few splotches on the skin are OK, but lots indicate it may be over-ripe. If you press the skin, it should give a little. If it gives a lot, it is likely to be mushy inside. If it is firm, wait a few days for it to ripen.
To get at the flesh inside, place the fruit on a chopping board and slice it in half. You may be surprised at how easy it is to cut with a sharp knife. You can use a dessert spoon to remove the flesh by running it around the circumference of the fruit, between the flesh and skin. Lift out the flesh, then check it for any leftover skin, trimming it off. The fruit is now ready to cut into cubes. You can refrigerate the cubes in a sealed container to keep it fresh. The flesh can be added to a fruit salad or mixed with yoghurt. You can also purée it to add to a smoothie, jelly or ice cream, or add the purée to a filling for a pudding such as a mousse or cheesecake.
Dragon fruit is also sold in health food shops and online in a dehydrated form. Dried dragon fruit has a chewy texture and mild taste. The dried fruit can be added chopped up to muesli or granola, desserts or salads and can be eaten whole as a snack.
Dietitian reviewed by Catherine Collins RD