As legend has it, dragon fruit was created thousands of years ago as the product of a fire breathing dragon. This unique-looking fruit is high in antioxidants and nutrients; read on to learn about its health benefits and how to eat it.
What Is Dragon Fruit?
Dragon fruit is a stunning fruit that is found in several colors. The skin can vary from a deep magenta to a pinkish-red while the flesh is white or red. There is also a variety with yellow skin and white flesh. Dragon fruit looks almost as if it has scales or fins, a little like an artichoke .
It is also known as pitaya, pitahaya, or strawberry pear – all common names of a fruit produced by several different species in the cactus family (Cactaceae). The fruit grows on a vine with edible flowers that only bloom at night .
It is native to Southern Mexico and Central America and is thought to have been brought to Southeast Asia by the French around 1860. It is now cultivated all over the world in tropical and subtropical areas .
Historically, at least one species has been an important food source for some tribes of Native Americans. It is currently enjoyed in the culinary world for its uniqueness and is easy to spot in supermarkets.
Among many species of dragon fruit, the most common one you will find is called red pitaya (Hylocereus undatus) – pinkish-red on the outside with white flesh on the inside. Most research tends to be focused on the red-flesh variety, which is called red dragon fruit and is commonly sold as frozen, bite-sized cubes .
Evidence suggests it has many health benefits due to its antioxidants and nutrients.
What Does Dragon Fruit Taste Like?
While most dragon fruit tastes slightly sweet, some species can be tart. The texture resembles that of a melon, but there are small black seeds throughout that make it somewhat crunchy and similar in flavor and texture to a kiwi.
- Rich in antioxidants and nutrients
- Unique taste
- May help decrease cancer risk
- Supports gut health
- Protects the heart
- Helps fight diabetes
- Seed oil nourishes the hair and skin
- Nutritional values vary
- May be high in calories
- May have food-drug interactions
- Allergies are possible
Because several species of dragon fruit are grown all around the world, nutrition values can vary depending on the variety, ripeness, when and how the fruit was grown, and how it was handled after harvesting.
Dragon fruit comes in different sizes but only about 60% of the whole fruit that makes the inner flesh is edible. The edible part of a small dragon fruit (100g) can contain [4, 5]:
- Calories: 60cal – 264cal
- Fat: 0
- Protein: 1.2g – 3.6g
- Carbohydrates: 12.9g – 82.1g
- Fiber: 1.8g – 2.9g
- Sugar: 7.7g – 82.1g
Although dragon fruit is often considered a low-calorie food, more ripe fruits can be high in calories and sugar. If you’re buying the frozen variety, check the product label for the exact calorie count.
The following nutrients are found in dragon fruit in significant amounts [4, 5, 6]:
The fruit also contains low levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids; their levels are much higher in the seeds, and especially in the seed oil [6, 7].
It also contains some vitamin C and carotenoids (provitamin A), but not to a significant extent [8, 9, 10].
Dragon fruit is rich in antioxidants [8, 9, 10]:
Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals – unstable atoms that can contribute to aging and a host of diseases. Free radicals are also generated from exposure to pollution and toxins in our environment .
Your body has its own highly effective pathways to get rid of toxins, but too much harmful influence can put a strain on these pathways. Antioxidants and nutrients like magnesium in dragon fruit may support detox pathways and help neutralize the free radicals heavy metals produce [12, 13, 14].
Potential Benefits of Dragon Fruit
Possibly Effective For
Dragon fruit is safe to eat as food, but the FDA has not approved it for any medical purpose or health claim, and it should never be used to replace something your doctor recommends.
1) Blood Sugar
In one meta-analysis of small clinical trials that collected data from 401 subjects, dragon fruit did not improve type 2 diabetes, but eating larger amounts of dragon fruit did produce a trend toward lowering blood sugar. The authors suggested that dragon fruit could be a good choice for people with prediabetes, a condition with borderline-high blood sugar that’s not quite diabetes yet .
The peel of dragon fruit is typically neglected and tossed away. But it may be packed with beneficial compounds. An extract from the peel improved insulin resistance, obesity, and fatty liver in several animal studies. Few people know that you can purchase the powdered peel and add it to smoothies or other drinks [16, 17, 18].
Plus, the magnesium content in dragon fruit can add to your total daily magnesium intake. Magnesium is important for heart disease prevention in people with type 2 diabetes .
Animal and Cell Research (Lacking Evidence)
No clinical evidence supports the use of dragon fruit for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
2) Gut Health
Having a healthy gut is important not only for good digestion, but it also supports weight control, mental health, and the immune system .
Dragon fruit contains non-digestible carbohydrates (oligosaccharides) which serve as prebiotics. Along with probiotics, prebiotics are vital for gut health: they help your body take in calcium and feed the good bacteria in your gut .
In mice fed a high-fat diet, the betacyanins in dragon fruit protected them from obesity. The antioxidant activity of the fruit lowered inflammation and bad gut bacteria while increasing the good bacteria .
In an animal study, the prebiotic fiber in dragon fruit absorbed more water in the gut, acting as a bulk-forming laxative, as well as a stimulant laxative. It may act as a mild laxative food in people with occasional constipation .
In a study on gut tissue, dragon fruit increased beneficial bacteria (bifidobacteria and lactobacillus) .
3) Heart Health
Dragon fruit is high in antioxidants that may benefit the heart. It may keep your arteries healthy by neutralizing free radicals that can damage LDL and harden the arteries [24, 25, 9, 26].
Many diabetic patients have heart disease as well. In one study on diabetic rats with high blood pressure, dragon fruit extract protected the artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body (aorta). It worked by boosting antioxidant defense .
In another animal study, antioxidants like hydrocinnamic acid (found in dragon fruit) lowered cholesterol levels and reduced obesity .
Additionally, dragon fruit is a good source of dietary magnesium. A 100g serving of dragon fruit contains 10 – 13% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) or 40mg. Numerous studies attest to magnesium’s benefits for the heart. In one study of 20 people, magnesium significantly decreased high blood pressure. It is unknown, however, if eating dragon fruit could consistently provide enough magnesium to reproduce this effect [29, 30].
Dragon fruit also contains 3-4% of RDI for omega-3 fatty acids. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is significant for a fruit. Plus, the seeds are rich in these fatty acids, unlike the fruit. They make up half of the oil extracted from the seeds [6, 7].
4) Hair and Skin
Skin cells and cells of the hair follicle have a high rate of turnover and require a good supply of nutrients, such as the ones found in dragon fruit (antioxidants, vitamins, and fatty acids) [31, 32, 33, 6].
Since oil from the seeds is especially rich in beneficial fatty acids, it may be the best choice for nourishing the hair and skin. Unfortunately, the seed oil is hard to find. Skincare products with the fruit extract are available, though it is unclear whether they carry any particular benefit over other oils and creams [31, 32, 33, 6].
Extracts from dragon fruit peel (high in antioxidants) are currently under investigation against a number of cancer cell lines, most notably breast and colon cancer cells [26, 34, 23].
While many observational studies show foods high in antioxidants lower the chance of disease, many clinical trials of antioxidant supplements have failed to show the same results. Many researchers have suggested that eating foods high in antioxidants and other nutrients, like dragon fruit, may be better than taking supplements [35, 36, 37].
Limitations and Caveats
There are not many studies on dragon fruit and those studies that involve dragon fruit tend to be limited to animals or cells. More human studies are needed to show significant results in benefiting people with specific health conditions.
Side Effects & Precautions
Dragon fruit is considered safe to eat in moderate amounts as food.
Dragon fruit allergy is extremely rare, though there has been at least one allergy to dragon fruit reported and confirmed by skin testing .
Dragon fruit may inhibit an enzyme used by the liver to break down medications (cytochrome P450). Talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about whether large amounts of dragon fruit might interact with any medications you take [39, 40].
How to Eat Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit may look difficult to eat, but it is very easy to prepare:
- Using a sharp knife, cut it in half lengthwise.
- You can either use your fingers to peel the skin away from the flesh or take a spoon to scoop the flesh out. The skin appears leathery but is actually fairly soft.
Dragon fruit is delicious on its own, but it can be added to salads, yogurt, or smoothies.
Like most fruits, once cut it is best consumed right away.
Dragon fruit is more than just a novelty. This succulent fruit is rich in healthy antioxidants and nutrients. Its high fiber content helps you to feel full longer and supports your gut health. It is considered very safe to eat; allergies are technically possible, although extremely rare. Besides, it can be a delicious and unique addition to your diet.
Head to your local market to buy fresh dragon fruit. Otherwise, the fruit powder, dried fruit, and cosmetic products with the extract are available online.