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May 2, 2013 by MAE CHAN
Why Figs Are Not Just a Fruit, But A Vital Resource For Humans

From a nutritional perspective, and in terms of antioxidant polyphenols, few dried fruits match the benefits of figs. However, that also serve a wide cross-section of human society, both as a common food and for their spiritual importance.

Figs grow on the ficus carica tree which belongs to the mulberry family and the dried fruit is an incredible source of minerals and vitamins. When dried, they have the highest concentration of antioxidant polyphenols among all of the dried fruits. Just four dried figs supply a quarter of the recommended daily allowance of anaemia-protective iron. They are also great source of dietary fibre and make you feel satiated.

We know figs have been used for centuries to treat disorders like hemorrhoids, along with liver, respiratory, urinary diseases and even diabetes. Many of their compounds, currently being studied in India, show great potential in the fight against these and other infections.

What is less well understood is the global nature of this association between figs and humans, which is maintained across species, continents and societies. This relationship is explored by David Wilson of Ecology and Heritage Partners and Anna Wilson from the University of Melbourne in Australia in a paper published in the Springer journal Human Ecology. Using examples from around the world, the authors show that figs are a vital resource for humans, no matter which species are present in a region.

It is well known that figs are a recurring theme in religion: it is the first fruit tree mentioned in the Bible, and some traditions believe that it was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. It was the tree under which Buddha received enlightenment. Figs can also have powerful impacts on everyday life, both in a positive or negative fashion. For instance, Kikuyu women in Africa smear themselves with the sap of fig trees to ensure pregnancy. In Bolivia, soul-stealing spirits dwell in the canopy of figs and walking under, or felling, these trees can cause illness. In Papua New Guinea, figs are believed to be the haunt of evil spirits which would be released if they are felled.

Aside from their spiritual connections, figs provide a range of material uses, and the authors explore examples of these from around the world. The fig is an important food source for both humans and animals, in both fresh and dried form. Different species of fig bear fruit at different times, so in areas where there are a large variety of fig species, fruit can be available all year round. In addition to human uses, shoots and leaves of fig trees are used for animal fodder, which can sustain livestock through otherwise lean periods.

In addition to being a food source, the bark and roots from fig trees are used for manufacturing items such as barkcloth, handicrafts, shields and buildings. The authors provide examples of barkcloth manufacture from Mexico, Uganda and Sulawesi. Despite the different fig species involved, the same method for making barkcloth has evolved three times -- a remarkable demonstration of cultural convergent evolution. Figs are also a source of traditional medicine with sap being used to treat a variety of illnesses from intestinal upsets to heart problems and malaria. While the treatments vary between areas, the modes of preparation and administration are highly conserved.

Figs and fig trees have a seemingly inexhaustible list of qualities and uses. Despite populations being continents apart, there are consistent similarities in the ways in which the fig and its tree are valued. The authors hope to emphasize the global nature of this relationship. They also provide hints that figs may benefit from humans by providing two examples where figs have used humans as a dispersal agent. Ficus religiosa in south-east Asia is spread by Buddhists and all fig species in Fundong, Cameroon, have been introduced from elsewhere. Given the examples the authors provide, further work is likely to further uncover just how close the connection is between humans and figs.

Health Benefits of Figs

Read on for five more ways figs can help you live a healthful, hearty life:

1. The antioxidants found in figs can protect lipoproteins in the blood from oxidation.

Studies show that eating figs produces a significant increase in antioxidant capacity that lasts for 4 hours after consumption. This boost in antioxidants allows the body to overcome the oxidative stress of consuming damaging foods like high fructose corn syrup found in carbonated soft drinks. Keep in mind that the darker varieties of figs contain a higher antioxidant capacity and many of these phytonutrients are found in the skin once the fruit is fully ripened.

2. Figs provide relief from chronic constipation and gastrointestinal disorders.

Three small figs contain 5 grams of fibre! Studies show that eating figs also helps to improve gut motility thereby preventing and improving constipation.

3. Figs are high in flavonoids.

Figs contain high levels of the flavonoid quercetin. Studies are showing that dietary intake of quercetin may be associated with the prevention of lung and colon cancers.

4. Figs can reduce inflammation that’s linked to the development of cancer.

Due to high levels of another flavonoid called luteolin, figs have very specific anti-inflammatory actions in the body. Luteolin has strong antioxidant capabilities and is very effective at neutralizing free radicals. When compared to other flavonoids, luteolin was the most effective at blocking the growth of tumours. Luteolin applied topically has been shown to be a key player in the prevention and treatment of skin cancer.

5. Eating figs can help control high blood pressure.

Figs are a good source of potassium. This important mineral helps to control blood pressure by causing blood vessels to relax which results in a drop in pressure. The potassium in figs works particularly well in ‘salt sensitive hypertension’ as it increases the urinary excretion of sodium chloride.

Mae Chan holds degrees in both physiology and nutritional sciences. She is also blogger and and technology enthusiast with a passion for disseminating information about health.

Reference Sources 131, 170, 202

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