Although dried figs are available throughout the year, there is nothing like the unique taste and texture of fresh figs. They are lusciously sweet with a texture that combines the chewiness of their flesh, the smoothness of their skin, and the crunchiness of their seeds. California figs are available from June through September; some European varieties are available through autumn.
Figs grow on the Ficus tree (Ficus carica), which is a member of the Mulberry family. They are unique in that they have an opening, called the “ostiole” or “eye,” which is not connected to the tree, but which helps the fruit’s development by increasing its communication with the environment. Figs range dramatically in color and subtly in texture depending upon the variety. The majority of figs are dried, either by exposure to sunlight or through an artificial process, creating a sweet and nutritious dried fruit that can be enjoyed throughout the year.
Figs are a good source of potassium, a mineral that helps to control blood pressure. Since many people not only do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, but do consume high amounts of sodium as salt is frequently added to processed foods, they may be deficient in potassium. Low intake of potassium-rich foods, especially when coupled with a high intake of sodium, can lead to hypertension. In the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study, one group ate servings of fruits and vegetables in place of snacks and sweets, and also ate low-fat dairy food. This diet delivered more potassium, magnesium and calcium. Another group ate a “usual” diet low in fruits and vegetables with a fat content like that found in the average American Diet. After eight weeks, the group that ate the enhanced diet lowered their blood pressure by an average of 5.5 points (systolic) over 3.0 points (diastolic).
Figs are a good source of dietary fiber. Fiber and fiber-rich foods may have a positive effect on weight management. In one study, women who increased their fiber intake with supplements significantly decreased their energy intake, yet their hunger and satiety scores did not change. Figs, like other high fiber foods, may be helpful in a weight management program.
Results of a prospective study involving 51,823 postmenopausal women for an average of 8.3 years showed a 34% reduction in breast cancer risk for those consuming the most fruit fiber compared to those consuming the least. In addition, in the subgroup of women who had ever used hormone replacement, those consuming the most fiber, especially cereal fiber, had a 50% reduction in their risk of breast cancer compared to those consuming the least. Fruits richest in fiber include apples, dates, figs, pears and prunes. When choosing a high fiber cereal, look for whole grain cereals as they supply the most bran (a mere 1/3rd cup of bran contains about 14 grams of fiber).
You probably do not think about the leaves of the fig tree as one of fig’s edible parts. But in some cultures, fig leaves are a common part of the menu, and for good reason. The leaves of the fig have repeatedly been shown to have anti-diabetic properties and can actually reduce the amount of insulin needed by persons with diabetes who require insulin injections. In one study, a liquid extract made from fig leaves was simply added to the breakfast of insulin-dependent diabetic subjects in order to produce this insulin-lowering effect.
In animal studies, fig leaves have been shown to lower levels of triglycerides (a form in which fats circulate in the bloodstream), while in in vitro studies, fig leaves inhibited the growth of certain types of cancer cells. Researchers have not yet determined exactly which substances in fig leaves are responsible for these remarkable healing effects.
Besides their potassium and fiber content, figs emerged from our food ranking system as a good source of the trace mineral manganese.
Your mother may have told you carrots would keep your eyes bright as a child, but as an adult, it looks like fruit is even more important for keeping your sight. Data reported in a study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology indicates that eating 3 or more servings of fruit per day may lower your risk of age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), the primary cause of vision loss in older adults, by 36%, compared to persons who consume less than 1.5 servings of fruit daily.
In this study, which involved over 10000 women and men, researchers evaluated the effect of study participants’ consumption of fruits; vegetables; the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E; and carotenoids on the development of early ARMD or neo-vascular ARMD, a more severe form of the illness associated with vision loss. Food intake information was collected periodically for up to 18 years for women and 12 years for men.
While, surprisingly, intakes of vegetables, antioxidant vitamins and carotenoids were not strongly related to incidence of either form of ARMD, fruit intake was definitely protective against the severe form of this vision-destroying disease. Three servings of fruit may sound like a lot to eat each day, but by simply tossing a banana into your morning smoothie or slicing it over your cereal, topping off a cup of yogurt or green salad with a couple of diced figs, and snacking on an apple, plum, nectarine or pear, you’ve reached this goal.
Before eating or cooking figs, wash them under cool water and then gently remove the stem. Gently wipe dry.
Dried figs can simply be eaten, used in a recipe as is, or simmered for several minutes in water or fruit juice to make them plumper and juicier.