Fig comes from the fig tree, emblematic of the Mediterranean basin. In the shape of a small pear, more or less rounded, it is covered with a fairly firm skin, which hides a very soft pulp, pink-red, stuffed with tiny seeds from the flowers of the tree. It is not a fruit in the botanical sense of the term, but the receptacle, called “synconium”, of the fig blossoms, which maturely becomes fleshy and eatable. Turkey, Italy, Greece and California are the main producers of figs. The majority of the harvest is for drying; the consumption of dried figs is more important than fresh figs.
History of the fig
The term “fig” appeared in the 13th century. The word comes from the provencal name figo which borrowed it from the Latin ficus. It replaced the popular form fie and the dialectical form fige, which took place until the end of the 12th century. The Latin name comes possibly from the Hebrew feg.
The prickly pear belongs to another botanical family. It is in fact the fruit of the Opuntia ficus-indica, a kind of cactus.
Native to western or southwestern Asia, the fig tree is the only one of the 600 to 800 species of Ficus whose fruit is produced on a commercial scale. Other species are grown for the production of latex, which is used to make rubber, or as indoor and outdoor ornamental plants.
With the date, olive and grape, the fig was the most important fruit of the ancient civilizations food of the Mediterranean basin. According to vestiges found during the excavation of Neolithic sites in the Middle East, the cultivation of the fig tree dated to at least 4 000 years before our era. Phoenician, Egyptian, Cretan, Greek and Roman, all respected this tree and cultivated it. As was the case for many other food plants, Romans introduced it into the rest of Europe. From the end of the 8th century, it was cultivated in France, especially in the orchards of Charlemagne.
The Spanish conquerors introduced it to Mexico in the sixteenth century. Then, in the eighteenth century, missionaries will establish the fruit in their Californian missions, hence the mission name of one of the most common fig varieties. Plant of warm and arid climates, the fig tree is widely cultivated in countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Iran and Morocco. These countries alone provide 60% of the world’s production. It is also grown in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, southern Asia and the United States, mainly in California.
Only a small part of the production of figs dedicated for export is sold in fresh state. The remainder of the production is dried or used by the agri-food industry which incorporates it into many processed products.
Fig health profile
Black, green or purple, figs contain an astonishing variety of minerals and vitamins. They could help prevent many diseases. And they’re delicious.
The benefits of fig
Although few studies have been done specifically on the fig, several prospective and epidemiological studies revealed that high consumption of fruit and vegetable decreased the risk of cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, and other chronic deseases like type 2 diabetes. The presence of antioxidants and fibers in fruits and vegetables could play a role in these protective effects.
What does the fig contain?
Figs contain different antioxidants, particularly phenolic compounds from the flavonoids family. The fig peel, which is usually consumed, contains the majority of the fruit antioxidants. Dark-colored figs would contain more antioxidants than the more light-colored varieties. In addition, a portion of fresh figs would have a higher antioxidant power than a portion of dried figs. Indeed, some phenolic compounds contained in fresh fruit would be destroyed or converted into non-antioxidant forms during the drying process. Dried figs have good antioxidant capacity, but are lower than other dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and raisins.
Fresh figs also contain small amounts of carotenoids, which have antioxidants properties. The most abundant are lycopene, followed by lutein and beta-carotene. It should be noted that carotenoids are better absorbed in the body when a small amount of fat is consumed in the same moment. Figs with a few nuts or cheese are an excellent healthy snack.
Fresh and dried figs contain about 30% soluble fibre and 70% insoluble fibre. A 60 ml (1/4 cup) portion of dried figs provides 10% of the recommended daily contributions of total fibers for mens aged 19 to 50 years old, and 15% for women in the same group age. In general, a rich fiber diet is associated with a lower risk of colon cancer. Soluble fibers can contribute to normalize blood levels of cholesterol, glucose and insulin, which can help in the treatment of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. As for insoluble fibers, they help to maintain an appropriate intestinal function.
Vitamins and minerals
The dried fig is also distinguished by a different nutrient content (including fiber, potassium, calcium and iron) than those of cranberries, dates, grapes and dried plums.
Oral allergy syndrome
Fig has recently been implicated in oral allergy syndrome. This syndrome takes the form of an allergic reaction to certain proteins of various fruits, vegetables and nuts. It affects mainly some people with allergies to the pollen from the environment. Thus, when some people allergic to birch pollen consume the raw fig (cooking usually deteriorate the allergenic proteins), an immunological reaction may occur. These people suffer from itching and burning sensations on the mouth, lips and throat. Symptoms may appear, then disappear, usually a few minutes after consumption or manipulation of the implicated food.
A recent study showed that the majority (78%) of individuals allergic to birch pollen had a positive allergic test of fresh figs, compared with 10% for dried figs. The figs contain small proteins, called peptides, which have a strong resemblance to the allergenic proteins of the birch. This would explain the close relationship between the birch allergy and the one related to the fresh fig.
In the absence of other symptoms, this reaction is not serious and the consumption of fig does not have to be avoided systematically. However, it is recommended to consult an allergist to determine the cause of the reactions to foods coming from plants. The latter will be able to assess whether special precautions should be taken.
Sulphites are one of the nine most common food allergens. Their consumption can cause very serious reactions among individuals who are allergic to it. Sulphites are naturally occurring substances in food and in the organism, but are also found in food additives. They are used as preservatives. Like other dried fruits, figs may contain sulphites. It is important for people who are allergic to sulphites to read the labels well to avoid consuming food products containing them. Although the regulations are strict in this regard, undeclared sulphites are occasionally found in some figs-based products. It is therefore important to be doubly watchful when consuming such products.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is characterized by various disorders of the digestive system, including abdominal pain and flatulence. This disorder may also be manifested by gastro-esophageal reflux or dyspepsia. Individuals with this syndrome may experience intolerance to certain fresh fruits (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries) and dried fruits (figs, dates, prunes). Although fiber consumption is encouraged to standardize intestinal transit, people with irritable bowel syndrome should pay special attention to their consumption of figs in order to detect possible intolerance.
Choice and conservation
Dried figs and canned figs are found at all times. The fresh fig is mostly available in the season, especially during fall. Depending on the variety, it is white, yellow, green, black or purple, and more or less sweet. It must be fleshy and soft to the touch. Its skin should be slightly wrinkled and free of stains or bruises.
Refrigerator. Fresh figs are kept for 1 day or 2 in the bottom of the refrigerator. Wrap them well because they easily absorb odors.
Freezer. Whole, they keep a few months.
Dried figs are kept in an airtight container, cool, dry and free from light.
Ecology and Environment
Ecologists are fascinated by the mutualism relationship between the fig tree and its unique pollinator, the bee. This tiny insect related to bees and wasps needs the fig tree, more precisely the fig, to multiply. In turn, the fig tree needs the bee for its pollination. For the system to work, both must accept a compromise. Some fig trees must be sacrificed to serve as nurseries for bee and will never be able to produce seeds. As for the insect, it must accept that a certain percentage of the females will die during pollination without having been able to lay their eggs, which is a loss for the future generation.
The fig nurseries, which serve as habitat for the bees and are parasitized by them, are not eatable. The others, called “nurseries”, are eatable. As one and the other grow on different trees, it has long been believed that it was two different botanical species, which is not the case.
Only certain types of fig trees use this strategy, especially the Smyrna fig tree, whose fruits are particularly tasty. In the late nineteenth century, it was introduced to California. But for years the trees will refuse to give fruit until they discovered the important role that bee plays concerning pollination.