Dragon fruit might be the ugliest fruit on Earth. The negatives about this fruit end there. What is known about this fruit's nutritional benefits and taste have made it immensely popular in areas where it grows, and expensive but still popular in areas where it is imported.
What is Dragon Fruit?
Pitaya, called dragon fruit, strawberry pears, and in Costa Rica, nanitikafruit, is produced by the climbing Hylocereus cactus, native to Central and South America.
How Pitaya Cacti Grow
These cacti climb trees and other elevated structures, and are especially fond of tile roofs where they are exposed to the constant tropical sun.
The hylocereus is prolific and produces fruit as many as five or six times a year. Once fruit is harvested, the plant flowers again and fruit is produced 30 to 50 days later, depending on the climate. Commercial farms in Vietnam have reported as much as 25 tons of fruit per hectare per year.
The Transplanted Cousins
Because of the popularity of pitaya in countries where they are endemic, the plants have been exported for cultivation in countries around the world where growing conditions are acceptable. Southeast Asia, Australia, Palestine and southern parts of the U.S. are some areas where hylocereus cacti are being cultivated for commercial production.
Pink, Yellow or Red
There are three types of sweet fruit producing hylocereus cactus. Each produces fruit varying slightly in colour and appearance. The nutritional benefits of these appear to have no variance.
How to Eat Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit is eaten raw. The fruit is cut in half and the pulp inside is spooned out. Most people find the flavour pleasant though somewhat bland. It has been compared to the flavour of watermelon. The skin is not edible.
The pulp of dragon fruit contains small dark seeds which are eaten with the pulp. They have a nutty flavour and are rich in lipids (polyunsaturated fatty acids), but must be chewed to be digested.
Drinks made from dragon fruit or dragon fruit mixed with other fruit juices are very popular in Central America. Market stands offering various frescas always offer pitaya when the fruit is available.
Dragon fruit is rich in carbohydrates, protein, calcium, iron and phosphorus. It also provides large amounts of niacin (vitamin B3) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The fruit is rich in water and fibre, and contains significant quantities of phytaolbumin antioxidants, which prevent formation of cancer-causing free radicals.
In countries where rice is a staple, diabetics use the fruit as a food substitute for a source of dietary fibre. It is also known to control blood glucose levels.
Some sources report that eating dried pitaya actually provides more benefit than eating fresh, with 42.5gr. of dried pitaya equal to 0.454kg. of fresh. An added benefit is that dried pitaya is more readily available in areas where the fresh fruit cannot be grown. It is an item commonly carried in most health food stores.