What is dragon fruit?
We all know: we should be getting anywhere from two to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
You may be lacking. Or maybe you’ve gotten into a fruit rut and have been constantly searching for the same healthy-yet-boring option: hello bananas.
Enter dragon fruit, a lesser known but increasingly popular choice.
Dragonfruit, also known as pitaya, gets its name from its spiky exterior, says Akua Woolbright, MD, national nutrition director for Whole Cities Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Whole Foods.
It’s not just a funny looking food – dragon fruit is said to have a whole host of nutritional benefits. Nutrition gurus praise its ability to boost antioxidants, support gut health and even help manage diabetes.
We spoke to nutritionists and nutritionists to learn all about dragon fruit, including where it comes from, how to enjoy it, and whether the benefits really hold up.
(Here are the best healthy eating secrets from nutritionists.)
Origin of dragon fruit
You can find dragon fruit in the produce section of your local grocer these days, but that wasn’t always the case.
“Dragon fruit is native to Central America,” says Dr Woolbright. It grows on the Hylocereus cactus, which is often found in Mexico but can grow all over the world.
Mareya Ibrahim, founder of Eat Cleaner and author of Eat like you give a fork says dragon fruit is very popular in Southeast Asia, where it grows.
What does dragon fruit look like?
Even if you’ve never heard of dragon fruit, you’ve probably seen it before. It’s probably the only bright pink products you’ll come across during your summer shopping.
Cut through the spiky pink skin and you’ll find mostly white flesh with tiny black seeds inside. “The tiny seeds inside are crunchy, but edible, like a kiwi,” says Susan Bowerman, RD, senior director of global nutrition education and training for Herbalife Nutrition.
There is more than one variety of dragon fruit, usually differentiated by appearance.
“There are more unusual varieties that have a red pulp with black seeds or a yellow husk with white pulp and black seeds,” says Marvin Singh, MD, director of integrative gastroenterology at UC Irvine’s Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute and founder of Precision Clinic outside of San Diego.
Like a mystery box, you never know exactly what you’ll get.
“Although the bright pink flesh looks like a tropical fish that has been crossed with a plant and given birth to a baby, you never know if you’re going to ingest white or pink flesh until you cut it,” says Ibrahim.
What does dragon fruit taste like?
Different varieties of this exotic fruit have different flavors.
“The white variety tends to have a very mild flavor, while the dark pink/red varieties have more flavor, similar to a watermelon,” Bowerman says.
Nutrients in Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit contains many essential nutrients. Here is the nutritional range and percentage of the Recommended Daily Value (DV) for 100 grams of dragon fruit cubes:
Egg white: 1.2 g (2 percent DV)
Fat: 0 g (0 percent RDA)
Carbohydrates: 13 g (5 percent DV)
Fiber: 2.9 g (10 percent DV)
Calcium: 18 mg (1 percent RDA)
Vitamin C: 2.5 mg (3 percent RDA)
Iron: 0.74 mg (4 percent RDA)
Magnesium: 6.3 mg (1.5 percent RDA)
Phosphorus: 60.2 mg (4.8 percent RDA)
The amount of health-promoting nutrients in your dragon fruit depends on the variety. “Fruits with a more deeply tinged flesh may have a higher nutritional value,” says Dr Woolbright.
Benefits of dragon fruit
Thanks to its unusual appearance and nutrients, dragon fruit is a hit with health food lovers. But note that there really isn’t any research that confers dragon fruit special powers over other nutrient-rich fruits.
“While dragon fruit is not directly associated with disease prevention, foods rich in antioxidants and fiber may support heart health while fighting inflammation that may increase the risk of future diseases,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, a registered dietitian. and author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies.
Dragon fruit contains good amounts of vitamin C and magnesium (more on that later), plus carotenoids, lycopene, manganese, phosphorus, iron and calcium.
It contains few calories
“Dragon fruit is low in calories — only about 60 per half cup of fruit,” says Ibrahim.
It is a smart choice for people who want to maintain their weight.
It contains a lot of fiber
The fruit is also full of fiber, which helps relieve constipation and get things moving. “A one-cup serving has seven grams of fiber,” says Jenna Gorham, a registered dietitian, licensed nutritionist, and founder of Link, a company that connects brands with dietitians.
Because an average-sized dragon fruit is smaller than a cup, she says a typical dragon fruit has about 2 grams of fiber.
However, that is not only a benefit for people with constipation.
“The fiber content helps lower cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure and supports a healthy digestive system,” says Dr Woolbright.
Thu Thai Thanh / EyeEm/Getty Images
It is packed with magnesium
“Dragon fruit contains more magnesium than most fruits, which can help support health,” says Palinski-Wade.
Magnesium has a slew of benefits, including lowering the risk of heart disease, reducing anxiety, and lowering blood pressure, among many others.
Sleep problems? “Low magnesium can increase insomnia, so adding dragon fruit to the diet can help improve sleep,” says Palinski-Wade.
It is packed with vitamin C
If you feel a cold coming on, Ibrahim says dragon fruit can help.
“It can boost the immune system because it provides a good amount of vitamin C,” says Palinski-Wade.
It contains prebiotics
You’ve no doubt heard of probiotics – the good bacteria that help keep your digestive system healthy. You can feed them and boost their growth with prebiotics, and dragon fruit delivers. “The prebiotics in dragon fruit help support gut health,” explains Dr. Woolbright out.
Can dragon fruit help with weight loss?
“Dragon fruit is naturally fat-free, low in calories, and high in fiber, making it an excellent food choice for weight loss,” says Dr. Woolbright.
“As a fiber-rich fruit, dragon fruit can benefit body weight,” says Palinski-Wade. “Eating a diet rich in fiber is associated with improved body weight and reduced waist circumference.”
Since most people don’t eat enough fiber, even one cup a day can make a difference.
“This can help make you feel full, which can lead to fewer calories being consumed later in the day,” says Palinski-Wade. “In addition, high-fiber foods can help stabilize blood sugar and fight cravings.”
(Check out these surprising weight loss secrets from around the world.)
Are there any risks or side effects?
Most experts agree that there are very few side effects of dragon fruit. But it is impossible to exclude allergic reactions for everyone.
“Although side effects are rare, as with any new food, people who have not consumed dragon fruit should watch for possible allergic reactions the first time they try it,” says Dr Woolbright.
And, as Bowerman points out, a sudden influx of fiber into your diet can cause some rather explosive changes.
“If your diet is usually quite low in fiber and you were suddenly consuming a large amount of dragon fruit — or any fiber-rich food for that matter — you could be experiencing a transient digestive upset,” she says.
In other words, until you get used to the increase in fiber, you may have symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, or bad gas.
(Wondering if you might have a food allergy? These are the easy-to-miss food allergy symptoms.)
What is the best way to eat dragon fruit?
If you’re the type of person who likes to enjoy fruit whole, go for it. “To eat, cut the dragon fruit in half and scoop out the pulp — similar to how you would eat a kiwi or an avocado,” Gorham says.
Or try the fruit in other dishes.
Ibrahim adds it to smoothies, such as the frozen Buddha bowl from her book (recipe below). “The pink one is the prettiest,” she says.
She also adds dragon fruit pieces to salad greens.
If fruit salad is more your speed, Ibrahim recommends cutting off the skin and dicing the flesh. Add them to a bowl with honeydew, cantaloupe, mint and a drizzle of honey.
You can also freeze dragon fruit cubes and place them in a bowl with chopped nuts, chia seeds, and sliced bananas, she says.
Worried about enjoying dragon fruit a little too much? Relax, says Palinksi-Wade, who likes to add it to smoothies for extra fiber and a pop of color.
“You can enjoy dragon fruit as often as you like, along with other fruits and vegetables as part of a balanced diet,” she says.
dragon fruit recipes
Enjoy dragon fruit yourself? Try these refreshing recipes.
Thanks to Mareya Ibrahim
The ultimate Frozen Buddha Bowl
Adapted from Ibrahim’s book, this Buddha bowl recipe works equally well as a breakfast, dessert, or snack.
1/2 frozen banana, still peeling
One (3.5-oz.) package of frozen dragon fruit or acai. without added sugars
1 teaspoon ground linseed
1/4 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk (such as almond, rice, coconut, soy, or hemp)
1/2 teaspoon raw coconut oil
1 cup regular coconut yogurt
1/2 teaspoon spirulina powder
1/2 teaspoon raw honey
Fresh dragon fruit and lychee fruit
Peeled sunflower seeds or raw hemp hearts
Unsweetened cocoa powder
- In a food processor or blender, combine the banana, acai, flaxseed, milk and coconut oil.
- Blend on medium to high speed for 15 to 30 seconds, until smooth and creamy. Pour into a bowl and add the yogurt, spirulina and honey. Stir until completely smooth.
- Top off your Buddha bowl with an assortment of toppings.
Thanks to Susan Bowerman
dragon fruit smoothie
Bowerman recommends this easy-to-make dragon fruit smoothie. “Dragon fruit smoothies are delicious and have the most amazing color if you use the pink variety,” she says.
1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
1/2 cup dragon fruit (small pieces or frozen puree)
1/2 cup mango pieces (fresh or frozen)
2 tablespoons vanilla protein powder
1 tablespoon lime juice
- Add all ingredients to a blender.
- Blend until smooth, pour into a glass and enjoy
Then learn about more exotic fruits that you might love.