Figs are a small, sweet and somewhat pear shaped fruit that grows on most of the over 1,000 Ficus tree species. Figs come in a range of varieties, sizes and colours. The raw fruit is consumed fresh from the tree and is considered to be very healthy however it may be dried or cooked as well.
Technically the fig is not a fruit but something classified as an in-frutescence. A genuine fruit is composed from a single plant ovum derived from a single blossom. An in-frutescence develops with multiple flower buds fusing together with the plant’s sexual organs. Figs like pineapples are made from multiple ovaries and clusters of flowers joined together. In the majority of cases, the flowers blossom inside the fig giving rise to numerous seed pods that can be seen when the fruit is cut. Regardless of the technicalities, figs and pineapples are just called fruits.
Ficus carica is the common fig tree and one of the oldest cultivated plants known to man. So old in fact that it is even named in the Bible. The plant is not that big as far as trees go, reaching to a height of up to ten metres (33 ft.). It is ramified from the base with the crown possessing comparatively few branches. The buds of the plant are hairy with white, sticky latex like fluid. The leaves are roughly the size of a spread out hand with toothed edges, and 3 to 5 crested lobes. The bottom sides of the leaves have small hairs. Numerous small flowers develop on the plant.
History of Figs
According to a 2006 issue of Science magazine, University of Bar-Ilan researchers in Israel report parthenocarpic fig evidence at six Mediterranean region sites dating 11,700 and 10,500 years ago. This Pre-Potter Neolithic domestication evidence has been found at the sites of Jericho, Netiv Hagdud, Gilgal, Jordan Valley, Eurphrates Valley. Additionally fig remnants have been discovered at Neolithic excavation sites dating back to 5,000 B.C.E. Pliny knew of 29 varieties of figs.
Figs hold a prominent place in Greek mythology; they were presented as a gift to Dionysus by Demeter in return for the blessings of the Greek Gods. Greek athletes were documented by Plato as having been fed diets of figs to enhance running speeds and strength. Figs are 50% sugar, so it is akin to being fed a candy bar.
Figs also hold significance in all major religions of the world. The common fig is one of the two sacred plants mentioned in Islam. There is even a Sura in the Quran (the Holy Book of Mulsims) entitled “The Fig”. Figs are also important in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. According to tradition, the Bhudda is said to have found “bodhi” (enlightenment) meditating under the Sacred Fig tree (Ficus religiosa). The same species is the “world tree” of Hinduism. The common Fig is mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 3:7 when Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nakedness and again in Mark 11:12-14 when Jesus fixed a fig tree for not bearing fruit. The fig is one of the fruits promised in the Promised Land according to the Tora (Deut. 8).
Figs first appeared in England between 1525 and 1548. While it is not known exactly when they first entered China, it is known that they were established in Chinese gardens by 1550. The European fig plants were also taken to Japan, South Africa, India, China, and Australia.
Mexico was the first place where figs were planted in the New World and introduced to California in 1769 when the San Diego Mission was established. However, it was not until the 1900, when the wasp was instituted as the pollinating agent that commercial fig production became possible. Only the common fig is cultivated in India and the northern areas of South America and Florida, whereas other types better suited to cooler climates are cultivated in Chile and Argentina. Currently Turkey, Portugal, Greece, Spain and California are the largest fig producers.
Health Benefits of Figs
Figs contain a number of micronutrients that provide health benefits. Traditionally figs have been used to lower cholesterol, treat diabetes, constipation and a host of other disorders. Figs contain a high quantity of fibre which acts like a laxative in the body. Fibre adds mass and bulk which enhances regular bowel function and averts constipation. The elevated levels of fibre help to reduce weight and are frequently added to diets of obese people on a weight loss program. However, the high calorie count of the fruit can be counterproductive if too many are consumed; only a few figs are sufficient to get the job done. Figs also contain pectin, a soluble fibre that absorbs excessive lumps of cholesterol as it moves through the digestive system and removes them from the body, thus helping to lower cholesterol. The high levels of fibre in the diet are beneficial in averting abdominal, and colon cancers.
Figs are a source of phenol, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which play an active role in reducing the risk of coronary heart ailments. Additionally fig leaves have a direct effect on the triglyceride levels in the body. Fig leaves produce an inhibitory effect on triglycerides resulting in a drop in their numbers. Triglycerides are a major factor in a number of heart ailments. Fig leaves also cut down on the quantity of insulin required by insulin dependent diabetic patients. Fig leaf tea is typically employed to provide relief from respiratory conditions like bronchitis and asthma.
Additionally figs are a good source of potassium. This element helps in regulating the sugar absorbed by the body following a meal. Elevated amounts of potassium in the body reduce the blood sugar peaks and troughs experienced by diabetic patients and help them lead better lives. The high consumption of sodium through processed foods and low intake of potassium rich fruits and vegetables frequently leads to high blood pressure. The potassium rich and sodium deficient figs are perfect for averting effects of hypertension.
The abundant amount of calcium in figs is vital for good bone health and cutting down on the risks of osteoporosis. Furthermore the phosphorus in the fruit endorses bone formation and initiates regeneration if bones are damaged. The typically high sodium diets in today’s society can lead to increased urinary calcium loss. The elevated amounts of potassium in figs regulate waste removal from the body. It averts the loss of calcium while enhancing the removal of toxic materials like uric acid.
Nutritional Benefits of Figs
Figs contain nominal amounts of saturated fats and sodium, and no cholesterol. They are high in dietary fibre. A 100 gram serving of fresh figs contains 80 calories, a little over one gram of protein, almost 2 grams of fibre and approximately 20 grams of carbohydrates. Same quantity of dried figs contains roughly three times the quantity of all these macronutrients.
In the micronutrient department, figs contain vitamins B1, B2 and B6, in addition to vitamins C, A, E and K. It also contains beta-carotene, choline and folate. Minerals found in figs include calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium, potassium and zinc.
Uses of Figs
Almost all parts of the fig pant are usable. In addition to being consumed in teas, fig tree leaves are used to make a perfume with musk or wood aroma. The milky, white latex released by the tree can be used as a meat tenderizer or in cheese making by drying and powdering it.
Figs can be consumed out of hand. The more refined consumer however cuts the fig in halves peeling and discarding the skin and stem and consuming the flesh. In commercial preparations figs are peeled by dipping in boiling lye water for one minute or in boiling sodium bicarbonate solution. In more humid, warm climate, figs are consumed whole without peeling. Whole or sliced figs can be frozen for up to one year.
Figs can be stewed or cooked in a variety of ways in puddings, pies, cakes, breads and other bakery items. Additionally they may be used to make jam, marmalade or turned into a paste. The paste is used as filling in various bakery products. In Europe, California, northern Africa and west Asia commercial drying and canning of figs are significant industries. Dried, roasted, and ground figs are used as coffee substitute. The fruit can also be candied or dried for snacking purposes. In the Mediterranean countries the inferior quality figs are used to make alcohol. Alcoholic extracts are used as flavouring for tobacco and liqueurs.
One study involving 51,823 postmenopausal women showed a reduction in breast cancer risk for those eating the maximum amounts of fruit fibre as compared to those not eating it. Additionally it has been found that figs contain phenolic compounds that play a positive role in human health in a number of ways. They do this by acting as antioxidants in a variety of ways such as free radical scavengers, hydrogen donators, reducing agents and more.
Extracts of Ficus carica showed elevated antibacterial activity against oral bacteria. Fig latex agent has shown inhibitory effect against propagation of different types of cancer cells.