Dragon fruit, also known as pitaya, is a growing food trend, but is it a passing fad or a food worth adding to your diet? Can we take seriously a food that sounds and looks more like a conversation piece? Here’s a look into this exotic fruit and what the research says about what it has to offer.
When you think of a dragon, you might think of a brightly colored, fire-breathing creature with green scales. If you’ve ever seen a dragon fruit, the description kind of fits — minus the fire-breathing part, of course.
But do surprising health benefits lurk behind that unique, scaly, and admittedly weird appearance?
Dragon fruit is growing in popularity, but is it good for you, and should you be eating it? And if so, where can you find it? And how do you use it?
What Is Dragon Fruit?
Dragon fruit is a tropical fruit that grows on the Hylocereus cactus, otherwise known as the Honolulu Queen.
This plant is pretty exotic-looking, as you might expect from a Honolulu Queen. It’s a sprawling cactus that grows along nearby rocks and trees like a vine. The cactus opens its large, white flowers only at night, earning them the nicknames “Lady of the Night” and “moonflowers.” The fruits start to grow on the plant after the cactus flowers.
According to ancient Chinese legend, dragon fruit was formed out of fire breathed by a dragon in a battle.
Other common names for dragon fruit include pitaya and strawberry pear. I might say that while the latter two names are pleasant-sounding, they’re just not quite as enticing as dragon fruit! Also, there are no ancient Chinese legends about strawberry pears. So, case closed. It will always be dragon fruit to me.
The vivid and leathery skin isn’t the only part of the dragon fruit that’s unique. The inside is also something you won’t find anywhere else. The first time you cut a dragon fruit open, you’re in for a surprise. Inside the most popular varieties of this fruit is a white pulp with small black seeds. It looks like the Oreo milkshake of the plant world!
The seeds aren’t just for looks, either. They add a nutty flavor and contain healthy fats.
Where Does Hylocereus Cacti Grow?
Though likely native to Mexico and Central America, they are now grown commercially in places all over the world. This includes some parts of the United States, including Hawaii, California, and Florida, as well as Israel, Australia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Even if you don’t live in one of these areas, pitaya is (for better or for worse) transported globally, and you can find it at many mainstream grocery stores. I’ve often seen a small selection of dragon fruit placed near the mango, kiwi, and pineapple where I live.
What Does Dragon Fruit Taste Like?
You might be surprised when you bite into the edible pulp of dragon fruit. It doesn’t taste as pungent as you might guess based on its name and appearance.
In fact, it has a refreshing, remarkably subtle, and refined taste, punctuated by an enticing and mild sweetness. Some people say it tastes like a cross between a kiwi and a pear.
There are some differences in taste, depending on the coloring of the variety. Pitaya that has white or yellow skin tastes milder than varieties that have darker pink or reddish skin.
But whatever the color, dragon fruit can provide some incredible healing and nutritional benefits.
9 Dragon Fruit Benefits
#1 — It Contains Prebiotics, Which Are Good for Your Gut Health
Prebiotics play the role of fertilizer for the good bacteria in your digestive system.
Red flesh dragon fruit contains an abundance of oligosaccharides, which are a type of prebiotic. Research shows that the oligosaccharides in pitaya can trigger the growth of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, two important probiotics.
#2 — It’s Good for Your Digestion
Fiber is essential for digestive health. And dragon fruit is packed with high-quality fiber.
#3 — It Boosts Your Immune System
#4 — It Helps Prevent and Fight Cancer
It also contains lycopene, a powerful compound also found in tomatoes, which has been shown to be beneficial in protecting against chemical and natural toxins.
#5 — It Helps Stabilize Your Blood Sugar
Not only is the fiber in dragon fruit great for your digestive health, but it also maintains blood sugar balance.
Adding pitaya to your diet could help steady your blood sugar after eating other glucose-spiking foods. Pitaya has been shown to counteract insulin resistance induced in mice.
#6 — It’s Heart Healthy
And dragon fruit with red pulp is particularly high in betalains, which provide its color and can reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
#7 — It’s Healthy for Your Skin
The vitamin C in pitaya does more than boost your immunity. It also boosts collagen production, which can help keep your skin looking healthy and young.
#8 — It Can Boost Your Iron Levels
Six ounces of chopped dragon fruit provide 1.26 mg of iron.
If you’re looking to boost your iron stores naturally, you may want to consider adding pitaya to your diet. Vitamin C helps enhance your iron absorption, so having both nutrients in a pitaya makes for a sweet package deal.
#9 — It Can Help Support Healthy Bones
Dragon fruit contains magnesium, an essential mineral for maintaining a strong skeletal system.
What About Potential Dragon Fruit Side Effects?
Upon further investigation, the individuals were found to have antibodies against pitaya in their blood. How common is this? Probably not very common. Nonetheless, you can have allergic reactions to just about anything, so it’s always good to be aware.
Another potential side effect — though not anything to be fearful of — is called pseudohematuria. If you ever eat beets, you’ve already experienced this. It’s a condition in which eating too many pitayas (or beets) can turn your urine or stool a pink or red color. Don’t worry — it’s harmless and temporary!
Dragon Fruit Sustainability
Cacti require very little water to grow and can sustain harsh desert climates. Many produce farmers have switched to growing pitaya instead of avocado or citrus groves because it requires so much less water.
Freezing temperatures will kill it, but many home gardeners enjoy growing dragon fruit in greenhouses or pots that can be brought indoors for the winter. For more on how to grow your own dragon fruit, go here.
And on the “con” side, if dragon fruit doesn’t grow near you, then it may need to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to get to your grocery store. For more on the benefits of locally grown foods, see this article.
How to Find Dragon Fruit
One of the easiest ways to use this remarkable fruit is to buy organic frozen pitaya (dragon fruit).
Another option is to get freeze-dried organic dragon fruit powder. Or you can try to find the whole fruit in the produce section.
You can make your own dragon fruit smoothies, smoothie bowls, drinks, salads, agua fresca, chia puddings, and more.
How to Choose and Cut Fresh Dragon Fruit
Choose a pitaya that has evenly red skin.
Test its firmness like you would an avocado, by giving it a slight squeeze in your hand.
Dragon fruit may look complicated, but it’s surprisingly easy to prepare.
When you’re ready to eat it, wash it under cold water and slice it in half with a sharp knife. You can then use a spoon to eat the pulp inside. Alternatively, peel the skin off and slice the flesh into chunks or slices.
This video may help:
5 Delicious and Healthy Dragon Fruit Recipes
Dragon fruit can simply be enjoyed raw (that’s my favorite way to eat it!). But if you’re looking for other ways to use it, check out the recipes below. I’ve also heard of it being cut into cubes and grilled, similar to pineapple.
Liver Rescue Smoothie from the Medical Medium (scroll down on the page for the recipe). This is an intriguing combination of pitaya with a few other antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.
Dragon Fruit Sorbet from The Spruce Eats. The sugar is optional here, leaving a combination of beautiful pink pitaya with lemon juice for a refreshing frozen treat.
Strawberry Dragon Fruit Chia Pudding from Choosing Chia. This is a simple snack made with whole food ingredients and is sure to melt in your mouth. You can omit the maple syrup if you want.
Tropical Fruit Salad from Simple Vegan Blog. This colorful fruit salad is delightfully simple to pull together with a variety of healthy fruits and lemon or lime juice.
Dragon Fruit Salsa from Mama Likes to Cook. With only a few ingredients, you can pull together this snack or appetizer quickly.
The Final Word on Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit is fun to eat and offers an impressive nutrient profile. And in suitably warm climates, it can grow easily, without needing excess water. I expect we’ll be seeing more and more of this fabulous fruit in the years to come.
But if it doesn’t grow near you, then it might be pricey and come with a sizable, excessive carbon footprint. And there are certainly many other fabulous fruits, each of which delivers their own special nutritional benefits.
So if you like it and can get it — fabulous! But if not, don’t stress. It’s not like a dragon’s going to come and burn your house down over it.
Tell us in the comments below:
Have you ever tried dragon fruit? What did you think of it?
What other exotic fruits have you enjoyed?
Featured Image: iStock.com/enviromantic