How can we forget that Adam and Eve were said to have clothed themselves with fig leaves, though it was eating from an apple tree that got them thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Figs have long been a staple in Mediterranean cuisine — archaeological evidence for the cultivation of figs goes back as far as 5,000 B.C and Ancient Egyptians knew that figs were an extremely nutritious fruit. In Greece, the first Olympians not only savored the fruit, but wore them as medals for their achievements. Today, California remains one of the largest producers of figs in addition to Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Since fresh figs are delicate and perishable, some of their mystique comes from their relative rarity. Because of this, 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.Dried figs travel well, which makes them excellent served on their own as a snack you can eat on-the-go.
Fresh figs taste great but many are sold and traded as a dried crop because they last only about a week after harvest. Even dried, they have the highest fiber and mineral content of all common fruits, nuts or vegetables. They also have as much as 1,000 times more calcium than other common fruits and by weight they have more calcium than skimmed milk, so they are great for bone health. Figs are 80% higher in potassium than bananas, and have more iron than any other of the common fruits while being high in magnesium. Dried figs contain phenol, Omega-3 and Omega-6. These fatty acids reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Famously, they are also stuffed full of fibre – you’ll be getting 5 grams of fibre in every three-fig serving, fibre being good for healthy, regular bowel function and can also be an aid to weight reduction, although each fig has around 20 to 40 calories. Containing the soluble fibre pectin, figs can help mop up excess clumps of cholesterol in the digestive system, and eliminating it from the body. Watch out through, too many figs can have a laxative effect (they are one of the most fiber-dense foods available).
Copper activates enzymes that keep connective tissues strong, and protects against iron deficiency, among other benefits. A serving of fresh figs is 19% of the RDA of copper, while a serving of dried figs is 24%.
They’re also are good sources of vitamin K, which allows your body to control bleeding, especially after an injury. Both fresh and dried figs provide significant amounts of vitamin K — around 10% of RDA. In addition, fresh figs about 13% RDA for vitamin A, which aids in cellular reproduction and supports eye health.
The carb content of figs is 20g carbs per 100g of fruit.
Wait, there’s more
In case you thought that was all a bag of figs — and fig leaves — was good for, keep reading. In some cultures, fig leaves are a common part of the menu. Regular ingestion of the leaves of the fig have repeatedly been shown to have ‘anti-diabetic properties’, reducing 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.
Figs are rich in potassium, which helps to regulate the amount of sugar absorbed into the body after meals. Large amounts of potassium can mean that blood sugar spikes and falls are much less ‘steep’. People usually take in sodium in the form of salt, but low potassium and high sodium level can lead to hypertension. Figs are high in potassium and low in sodium, so they are a good defense against hypertension.
But too much of a good thing can be bad for you, and eating a lot of figs can cause diarrhea and dried figs are high in sugar and can potentially cause tooth decay as well as high blood glucose levels so enjoy the fruit – better fresh than dried in a diabetic diet – but beware of the pitfalls.
Giving a fig
Fresh figs should be purchased only a day or two before you want to eat them. Look for figs that have a rich, deep color and are plump and tender (but not mushy), with firm stems and free of bruises. They should have a mildly sweet fragrance. If they smell sour they may be spoiled. They ripen from green to red to yellow to brown, the change is due to the breakdown and disappearance of chlorophyll, which had made them green to begin with. Ripe figs should be kept in the refrigerator where they will stay fresh for about two days. Slightly under-ripe figs can be kept on a plate at room temperature away from direct sunlight until they ripe.
Dried figs will stay fresh for several months and can either be kept in a cool, dark place or stored in the fridge. They should be wrapped up or in their own container as exposure to air may cause them to become hard or dry. Dried figs can simply be eaten by themselves without any ado, used in recipes, or simmered for several minutes in water to make them plumper and juicier.
Figs vary in color, taste and texture depending upon the variety, of which there are more than 150. Some of the most popular varieties are:
- Black Mission: blackish-purple skin and pink colored flesh
- Kadota: green skin and purplish flesh
- Calimyrna: greenish-yellow skin and amber flesh
- Brown Turkey: purple skin and red flesh
- Adriatic: the variety most often used to make fig bars, which has a light green skin and pink-tan flesh
*Serraclara A, Hawkins F, Perez C, et al. Hypoglycemic action of an oral fig-leaf decoction in type-I diabetic patients. Diabetes Res Clin Pract 1998 Jan;39(1):19-22. 1998. PMID:13430.
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