By: Zeenat Farooq
Common Fig or Ficus Carica is a flowering plant of Moraceae (mulberry family). A native of Middle East and Western Asia, Fig is commercially grown in various regions like Asia and North America, particularly California as fruit and an ornamental plant. The plant grows very well in arid, sunny areas and can also tolerate seasonal droughts and the Middle East and Mediterranean climate best suits the growth requirements of the plant.
Fig although is a seasonal fruit, but dried figs are now available throughout the year in almost all parts of the world. Fig is lusciously sweet and deliciously crunchy. It is soft and spongy and hence used in various candies, sweet preparations, jams and jellies. There are more than 100 varieties of fig in the world which vary subtly in texture but dramatically in colour. Of the popular varieties of fig, Adriatic is the most popular and widely consumed variety.
Figs in Bible and Al-Quran: Figs are one of the oldest fruits to be cultivated by humans. Their history dates back to the times of Prophet Adam (PBUH). It is mentioned in Bible in the Book of Genesis that Adam and Eve, covered their bodies with the leaves of fig plant when they were expelled from paradise. Figs are also mentioned at a number of places in Al-Quran.
Allah, has sworn in Al-Quran by the fig because the fruit is soft and gentle and free from anything that is harmful or indigestible.
Health Benefits: The health benefits of figs are mostly attributable to the vitamins, minerals and fibre contained in it. Figs contain a rich reserve of vitamin A, Vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), calcium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, sodium, potassium and chlorine.
- Maintenance of a healthy gut: An average sized fig contains about 1 gm of fibre which is very important for a healthy gut. Whole figs and fig milk extracts are also excellent laxatives which prevent constipation. In fact, many commercially available laxatives contain fig milk extracts.
- Prevention of coronary heart disease: Dried figs contain omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids which reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Furthermore, leaves of fig have a triglyceride lowering effect and have been shown to effectively reduce TG levels of blood in animal experiments. Figs contain a soluble fibre pectin which helps in removal of extra cholesterol from the gut and its disposal towards the excretory system. It therefore has a cholesterol lowering effect which also indirectly promotes better cardiac health, prevents metabolic syndrome and also has a positive effect against non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Reasonable amount of food fibres also have a protective benefit against different forms of GIT related cancers like colorectal cancer.
- Prevention of breast cancer: Figs reduce the incidences of post-menopausal breast cancer in women. A study performed on 51,823 post-menopausal women over a period of 8 years who were put on a diet containing reasonable consumption levels of figs has shown a 34 percent reduced risk of breast cancer development. This strengthens the immune system to better defend the body against cancer cells.
- Anti-diabetic effect: Fig fruit and fig leaves have an anti-diabetic effect on the body. Fig fruit is rich source of potassium which regulates the intensity of spikes and subsequent falls in blood sugar levels observed after meals. Consumption of moderate amount of figs by diabetic patients decreases their insulin dependence. In fact, figs are recommended source of dietary fibre and minerals for diabetic patients. Figs also contain a number of alkaline substances which helps to prevent drop in pH of the blood as a result of uncontrolled diabetes.
- Controlling hypertension: Figs contain very high potassium but low sodium levels (high Potassium/Sodium ratio) which makes them ideal for people with hypertension. In a statistical study on hypertension, a group of people were given enhanced diet rich in fruits like figs but low in snacks and fats. After eight weeks, the participants had an average reduction of 5.5 points in systolic and 3.0 points in diastolic blood pressure.
- Respiratory diseases: Fig leaves contain health boosters, natural anti-oxidants, flavonoids, polyphenols and anti-allergic substances used in organic tea preparation. In fact, organic tea with fig leaf extracts is prescribed for various respiratory conditions like bronchitis, whooping cough and asthma. Figs leaf extracts can also relieve symptoms of sore throat.
- Bone health: Figs are rich source of calcium which is the most important mineral for bone development and prevention of osteoporosis. Figs contain reasonable amounts of phosphorus which promotes bone development and re-growth in case of bone damage like injury or fracture.
- Prevention of calciuria: Hypercalciuria is a medical condition in which a patient losses excessive calcium in the urine. This makes bones weak and fragile and also puts stress on kidneys to excrete high amounts of calcium. Figs have a positive effect against calciuria due to high amount of potassium which regulates the amount of waste lost through urine. It decreases the amount of urinary calcium while increasing the amount of uric acid and other toxic substances. It therefore has a protective effect against gout as well.
- Healthy vision: Figs contain vitamin A which is good for healthy vision. Also, figs have a delaying effect on age related macular degeneration (ARMD, a condition which arises as a result of aging and weakens eye sight) and therefore promotes healthy vision in older people. In a study performed on 10,000 aged men and women with a mean follow up of around 18 years, it has been seen that the participants who regularly consumed figs had markedly decelerated rates of ARMD over control group followed routine diet plans. Interestingly, the control group did not show any marked effect on ARMD even after consumption of anti-oxidants and vegetables.
Do not change your diet plan without expert advice: Figs, especially dried ones, are a rich source of concentrated sugar which can cause tooth decay and weight gain in excessive amounts. Also, it can have a damaging effect in other health conditions like obesity and diabetes. Some people might also be allergic to figs, fig extracts or any chemical constituent contained in them. Therefore it is always best to consume it in moderate amounts and especially for people with any health issues like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity, any change in diet content or pattern should always be done in consultation with a medical professional.
Author is a research fellow at Department of Biotechnology, University of Kashmir.