All fruits have some nutritional value, and since they are typically eaten raw, we get to benefit from all the vitamins and minerals they contain without losing any of them in the process of cooking. But, what bestows the superfruit tag on some fruits could be the extraordinary health benefit they offer, as in the case of pomegranate and acai berries.
Clever marketing can catapult any fruit into superstardom, but unless there’s real scientific evidence to support the claims, the fame could be short-lived. There are, however, several strange, lesser-known fruits that claim superfruit status solely on the strength of their superior medicinal value. Both anecdotal and scientific research help to validate the potent health-promoting constituents in each. These fruits are certainly worthy of our attention.
Meet a few strange superfruits from around the world:
A native of Central America, Acerola, also called Barbados cherry, does not belong to the cherry family, even though both look similar in color and size. Very acidic in taste, acerola is mainly used either in medicines or in preparations like jellies and jams in which the added sugar modifies the taste. The high vitamin C content of the fruit could be behind most of its medicinal properties, including its excellent anti-oxidative capacity. It also contains a few vitamins of the B group, as well as vitamin A.
The ailments traditionally treated with acerola include allergic rhinitis, retinal hemorrhages, depression, and dental problems. It is the best bet against the disease scurvy caused by the deficiency of vitamin C. However, it is the fruit’s ability to bring down blood sugar levels and the potential for preventing atherosclerosis and cancer that elicits greater interest in this superfruit today. Its role in skin health, by way of collagen production, and protection from aging due to sun exposure, is also being explored. Acerola gel for topical use, and extract in powder form, are available.
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This cricket ball-sized spherical fruit grows on the Aegle marmelos tree native to India. The sweet and sour pulp contained within the hard shell is mixed with sugar and water to make a cooling summer sherbet, each fruit yielding up to 6 liters of drink.
The medicinal uses include control of blood sugar and cholesterol, but it is most commonly used for digestive health. The polyphenols in the fruit protect the mucous lining of the stomach and the intestines, and prevent the adhesion and proliferation of unwanted microbes. Fruit extract is used to treat stomach ulcers and chronic constipation. Not only the fruit, but its seeds, leaves and roots also contain a plethora of potent phytochemicals, making them ingredients in a number of traditional medical preparations. Its antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties are attributed to eugenol and cuminaldehyde.
Adansonia digitata is the most famous of the Baobab trees, known as Tree of Life in Africa. It stores water in its trunk to tide over long summers without rainfall, a feature that helps it to stand tall and stately amidst a barren landscape. This long-living tree is truly a tree of life because it sustains a number of animals including man.
The large fruits, as big as coconuts and weighing about 3 pounds, are edible. They are highly nutritious, containing vitamins B and C, minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium, not to mention carbohydrates and fiber. Natives use the leaves as a vegetable, and oil is extracted from the seeds. They use them for the preparation of various indigenous drugs too. Dried fruit powder has been approved as a food supplement in Europe and US.
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4. Incan berries
Incan berries are cherry-sized, golden colored fruits that come packed inside delicate-looking Chinese lanterns! Named Physalis peruviana after its place of origin, these sweet berries full of tiny seeds have a slight tinge of bitterness that takes you by surprise. Tiny they may be, but they pack quite a bit of nutrition, which includes vitamins and minerals besides unique phytochemicals. Yet another surprise is its protein content!
In indigenous medicine, Incan berries are used to treat hepatitis, malarial fever, asthma and rheumatism. The fruits and leaves are used as a mild laxative. But recent studies have found them to be effective in treating diabetes and hypertension, besides cancer. If you cannot find fresh Inca berries, you may be lucky to find some dried ones.
Jambul, or Jamun, are shiny purplish black fruits of the Syzygium cumini tree belonging to the Myrtle family. It’s a native of Asia, but it has already entered the invasive plant list in Brazil, Hawaii, and in some areas of Florida. The sweet-sour pulp of the fruit has a very astringent feel and it stains the hands and mouth a purple color. The fruits are a tasty means of lowering blood sugar. The tannins and gallic acid content make it an effective remedy for diarrhea, too.
Extract of the seeds and the bark are used in many traditional Indian and Chinese herbal medicines for treating diabetes. The glycoside jamboline apparently prevents starch conversion. Hypertension and female infertility are also treated with the leaf tea. It is used as a liver tonic too.
Mangosteen is a delightful fruit enclosed in a not-so-delightful package. The thick rind, albeit colored an attractive purple, is bitter, with an extremely astringent feel. The tree Garcinia mangostana is native to Indonesia from where it has spread to other tropical regions. Though mostly grown for the delicious fruit, the local people have discovered many medicinal uses which include the treatment of infections of the skin, urinary tract, and the stomach. It is effectively used to stop diarrhea, the tannins in the rind probably contributing to it.
Even though the anti-cancer properties of mangosteen are still under scrutiny, its juice, marketed under the name Xango, is popular. It is believed to be effective in treating tuberculosis and menstrual problems among many other ailments. It is possible that the phytochemicals in mangosteen may be boosting immunity and giving a sense of well-being to those who consume the extract on a regular basis.
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Soursop is the fruit of the tropical tree Annona muricata, also known as Graviola. It has a more acidic pulp compared to its cousin custard apple. This South American native cannot withstand very cold temperatures, let alone frost, so its cultivation is limited to warmer regions of the world.
The medicinal values assigned to this fruit are innumerable, ranging from treating worm infestations to cancer and viral diseases like Herpes simplex. The natives have been reportedly using an herbal tea made with the leaves as a cheaper treatment for several types of cancers. Consumption of the fruits is thought to be a preventive measure, too.
Since toxicological studies are required before any potent plant derivatives can be marketed as drug, several experimental studies have been conducted on soursop. A Purdue research supported by the National Cancer Institute confirms that leaf extract is effective against at least 6 different cancer cell lines. Cancers of the prostate and the pancreas have shown highest response to this treatment. While its efficacy is confirmed, safety is not. That doesn’t discourage many cancer patients from experimenting with it.
These superfruits are well-known in their native countries for their medicinal value. Many are ingredients in traditional remedies too. More research may be needed to authenticate the claims before they become widely available but at first glance, many of them appear to hold great value for both prevention and treatment of many common ailments.