Commonly known as pitaya, as well as other names like dragon pearl fruit and cactus fruit, a quick Googling of this so called superfood will produce a laundry list of sensationalized headlines, which are coming from noteworthy media outlets and other authority sources. Our favorite, for all the wrong reasons, is this one:
“The New Exotic Fruit with Extreme Health Benefits”
Wow. Apparently just plain ol’ benefits aren’t good enough these days. This fruit offers you the extreme versions.
We can’t wait to find out what those are!
Unfortunately the actual article associated with that headline was complete rubbish and didn’t tell us. Perhaps a couple nuggets of useful info, but mostly fluff and certainly nothing which warranted the use of that adjective.
So we looked elsewhere to get to the bottom of this…
What is dragon fruit?
Given its name and funky appearance, your first guess might be that it comes from China.
Actually, where dragon fruit is native to is Mexico.
Or at least, that’s the best guess for the origin country. If not Mexico, scientists are confident it’s from somewhere else in Central America.
The Eastern-inspired name is thanks to its recent cultivation in some Asian countries – a new phenomenon within just the past hundred or so years (1).
This white or red-fleshed fruit grows on a night-blooming cactus. Most often it comes from the Hylocereus genus, which includes over a dozen different – yet very similar – species of cacti. With each fruit weighing up to 2 lbs, it’s the size of an elongated softball. The taste is subtle and not overtly sweet. The flavor is often described as a cross between a kiwi and a pear. The texture is juicy, with tiny black seeds evenly spread throughout the flesh.
How to eat pitaya? However you want! Dice into cubes and use as a topping on cereal, oatmeal, and ice cream. With the fresh fruit, you can slice it in half and easily scoop it out with a spoon and into your mouth. Eating it acai bowl style is probably the most popular way it’s sold in the US.
Is pitaya the same as dragon fruit? Yes and no.
In the English-speaking parts of North America, both of those names are used to describe the most common species consumed:
- Hylocereus costaricensis – These are red on both the inside and outside.
- Hylocereus undatus – These are white on the inside, but red on the outside.
- Hylocereus megalanthus – The least common type. White on the inside, yellow on the outside.
There is no difference in using the name pitaya vs. dragon fruit in reference to those three.
But outside of the United States and Canada, when you venture down south, there are more varieties than the types we’re accustomed to eating.
In Central and South America – as well as some other parts of the world – the word pitaya or pitahaya is often used to talk about a completely different species – a fruit coming from the cacti genus Stenocereus.
- Stenocereus gummosus – This is called either a pitaya or a sour pitaya. The latter accurately describes its taste, versus those coming from the Hylocereus genus which are at least somewhat sweet.
But in the US, the sour kind is not something you are going to find for sale at your favorite juicery. When you buy a pitaya bowl, it’s guaranteed their source is from a Hylocereus species.
In short, pitaya and dragon fruit are the same thing if you live in the United States.
When you read those sensationalized editorial pieces, you will notice they speak about it in a manner similar to how Donald Trump describes things.
Lots of hyperbole, with little or no substance to back it.
If they say it’s “chock full of antioxidants” then certainly, they should be able to provide some sort of numerical amount? Or at the very least, names of other fruits which measure comparably.
Or if they say you should use it for acne, arthritis, liver, kidneys, pregnancy, or losing weight, they better have at least some sort of research to back up those claims.
Often times, they list none. Not even rat studies or Petri dish experiments.
Like many superfoods – and those which are alleged to be – the reality differs greatly from the hype.
However with red dragon fruit, it seems to be one of the most extreme examples of it. Yes, that’s the only thing “extreme” there seems to be about it. Here’s why…
The clinical studies
Since literally not a single article we saw cited any, we turn to the NIH’s PubMed database. It has just about any and every legit piece of medical research ever published – tens of millions and growing daily.
Out of all those, certainly we should uncover some clinical validation about what the benefits are of dragon fruit.
Let’s start by searching under its common name…
Hmm, nothing. Looking under pitaya and pitahaya were also failures.
Typically, their database is good at automatically matching common names with the scientific names. But just to be sure, we also looked under:
“hylocereus” – Even though only 3 species are typically consumed, by looking under this word, we have covered every species in the genus.
“stenocereus” – While this is a different type of cactus which we don’t normally think of as pitaya in the US, we looked under this genus, too.
Neither produced any results. That means dragon fruit health benefits have never been researched in any clinical trials whatsoever.
Since we’re striking out on finding human clinical uses for pitaya, let’s turn to something more straight forward.
Out of the nearly 77,000 foods in the USDA’s National Nutrient Database, the closest entry you will find is one for Lifesavers raspberry dragon fruit candy gummies.
Not very helpful.
If you look at all the hyped up articles about this fruit, some do list nutrition facts for pitaya. The problem is they don’t list a source or when they do, they’re just citing one another!
A big incestuous circle of “research” that doesn’t seem very reliable. When they cite Livestrong as the source, it does not evoke the most trust, at least in our book.
Based on the values many of these sites list, it appears many are originating – probably unknowingly – from the Pitaya Plus smoothies packs nutrition label.
Those are frozen 3.5 ounce bags of the fruit pulp you can buy in the frozen food aisle at some Whole Foods and other diverse grocery stores. They are organic pitaya pulp with seeds intact and no added sweetener. Admittedly, they’re close to the fresh fruit, but not the same thing.
The best, most complete, and reliable nutritional data we could find came from a study published in a 2014 edition of International Food Research Journal (2). Conducted by the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences at a university in Malaysia, they ran a number of tests on red pitaya.
They tested local samples (from Malaysia) and imported samples from Australia. We went with the numbers from their Malaysian test, since presumably it would represent fresher fruit.
Regardless of where it’s grown, most values will remain the same.
Technically, it was fresh pitaya juice which they was tested. However given their description of how it was made, it was essentially the the entire fruit liquefied, since they kept the fiber intact. It was raw, not pasteurized or heated. They didn’t include the skin or peel, but no one eats that anyway.
To be confident in the numbers, we cross-checked against another source involving just the fruit pulp. They reported on measurements of how much vitamin C, fiber, protein, and fat it contained (3). We used this secondary source for fat content, since the first source did not measure it. For the other things, the numbers from the different sources matched closely.
|Dragon Fruit (Pitaya) Nutrition Facts|
|Serving Size: 100g (about 3.5 ounces)|
|Calories From Fat||1|
|% Daily Value*||% Daily Value|
|Total Fat <1g||1%||Vitamin A 142 IU||3%|
|Sodium 36mg||2%||Vitamin C 0.02mg||0%|
|Potassium 158mg||3%||Calcium 6.7mg||1%|
|Total Carbs. 13g||4%||Magnesium 26.4mg||7%|
|Fiber 2.7g||10%||Iron 0.3mg||7%|
|Protein 1.5g||3%||Zinc 0.4mg||3%|
|*Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Numbers have been rounded to the nearest whole percentage.|
Is dragon fruit good for you? Based on the above data, it’s hard to make that argument. It’s not bad per se, but you can’t claim it healthier versus other common (and much cheaper) fruits and vegetables.
How much vitamin C does dragon fruit have? Thanks to a game of telephone, it appears the real number has been lost in translation.
Many websites hyping this as a superfood are claiming it has 20 mg, or around 34% of your daily value in a 3.5 ounce serving (or around that percentage for RDA/RDI, depending on which county you live).
Before those sites started citing each other, whoever listed that number first appeared to mix up milligrams and micrograms (µg). The source used for the above nutrition facts listed 24.66 µg of total ascorbic acid for the Malaysian pitaya and 30.21 µg for the Australian. That works out to be less than 1% of your daily value.
There is another reputable scientific source we didn’t use, a paper published in 2007 in the Journal of Applied Botany and Food Quality (4). They measured vitamin C in pitayas grown in Costa Rica. While those results would be more than 1% of daily value, they are nowhere near the 34% or so you’re seeing elsewhere.
Regardless of which country of origin or scientific source you go with, there is very little vitamin A or C.
Perhaps there are other healthy antioxidants in dragon fruit which are not found on your typical nutrition label…
Overall, the total antioxidant activity of red pitaya is extremely weak in vitro.
Its ORAC value is 760. It’s by no means the worst, but if you’re paying $10 or $15 for each of these, you better be getting more than that!
Of course, hearing that number by itself is meaningless. Here are 10 random things for your to compare:
- 438 – iceberg lettuce
- 546 – plum tomatoes
- 862 – kiwi
- 1,300 – mangos
- 1,767 – acai juice
- 9,621 – wild blueberries
- 34,053 – black pepper
- 55,653 – raw cocoa powder
- 102,700 – freeze-dried acai powder
- 2,822,200 – astaxanthin
Even iceberg lettuce has over half the amount of antioxidants as dragon and you can buy a head of that at your local dollar store. In comparison, 760 for an expensive delicacy that isn’t even that great tasting seems pathetic, right?
If you compared the dragon fruit red flesh vs. white flesh, even though the latter isn’t tested for ORAC, you can bet its value will be even lower. Why? Because some of the antioxidants are coming from those pink and purple pigments. If you drop those – which is the case with white dragon fruit – the ORAC would also be expected to drop.
5 health benefits
Aside from allegedly being “chock full of antioxidants,” what else are people saying about this colorful food?
Quite a bit.
We already know there’s zero clinical trials for any of them. When you look at other types of research about the diseases and ailments it’s supposedly beneficial for, you discover the evidence is limited or greatly exaggerated.
Here’s what it’s being alleged to help…
1. Weight loss
While far from proven, this one does have some interesting research.
But it’s mostly from 2016 and the articles claiming that pitaya is good for losing weight were written before these latest studies were even published.
At a Chinese university, they looked at 36 mice, divided them into 3 groups, and fed each a different diet; low fat, high fat, and high fat plus a daily dragon fruit dosage (7). This went on for 14 weeks.
“Red pitaya betacyanins protect from diet-induced obesity and its related metabolic disorders, which is associated with improved inflammatory status and modulation of gut microbiota…”
For the gut flora benefits, they pointed out an increase of Akkermansia muciniphila (a natural probiotic) and a decrease of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes.
Since they considered these as digestive benefits, they said dragon fruit may be a potential treatment for type 2 diabetes and Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). Anything is possible, but the gut flora of mice is way different than humans.
If we want to start basing digestive decisions on the gut flora in rodents, then we would avoid stevia. Why? Because the gut flora of rats reportedly converts stevia to a mutagenic compound (8). Thankfully, the same does not happen in humans with the amounts we eat.
Another pitaya study published in 2016 by Malaysian researchers found that when rats were given red pitaya juice along with a high fat diet, there seemed to be a positive influence on obesity-related genes. Specifically, genes which are believed to help with energy balance (9).
Other research from China in 2016 also suggested gene-related anti-obesity advantages in rodents, but they were using the betacyanins from the fruit peel, which no one eats (10).
2. Good for skin and hair
Many websites are saying this fruit is good for skin. Why? The most cited reasons are because it has “high amounts” of vitamins A, C, and minerals which are “amazing” because they “moisturize and smooth the skin.”
What a crock. As you saw above in the nutrition, there’s nothing special going on with those things.
Others take it a step further, and start saying you should use it to treat skin diseases. Instructions of using pitaya for acne are given; mush a slice up into a paste and apply it topically to the red and inflamed pimples. Their remedies for eczema and dry skin was similar.
If any of those work, there’s literally no research on them. Not even in mice or rats.
The only research we could dig up related to skin care was from 2005 and involved diabetic rats (11). White dragon fruit extracts (from the Hylocereus undatus) were created using the pulp and other plant parts; flowers, leaves, and rinds.
These researchers out of Mexico concluded that after a 7 day treatment, when compared to the rats not getting the fruit extract, there were:
“…increases in hydroxyproline, tensile strength, total proteins, DNA collagen content…”
Interesting, but that hardly warrants all the skin care talk.
As far as it helping hair, the statements are related to appearance – like being shiny and full of volume when the extract is used in shampoo and conditioner. It’s completely subjective and with zero research, there’s not much to say on this. Thankfully, no one seems to be alleging it helps hair loss or an actual disease of the scalp.
This is another common benefit you’re going to see cited. While we have already mentioned a couple rodent studies which could be construed as being related, there’s not a whole lot on this.
In a 2010 study looking at diabetic rats given the fruit pulp, their aortic stiffness was said to be improved and also a reduction in oxidative damage was seen (15).
While not about diabetes, a 2014 study fed rats a high carb and high fat diet. That’s similar to what many type 2 diabetics eat or at least previously ate before their diagnosis. For the group of rats which were also given a red pitaya supplement, a reduction in diastolic stiffness of the heart was observed. It was measured after 8 weeks of receiving the juice (16).
They don’t go so far as to call it a cure, but a number of websites are saying that dragon fruit fights cancer. You will see it on their lists of so-called anti-cancer superfruits.
Their sales pitch? It contains a type of antioxidant called phytoalbumin, which helps combat free radicals in the body.
Phyto = plant
Albumin = proteins of the albumin family, from eggs originally.
The term “phytoalbumin” isn’t really even the correct term to use. You won’t find it anywhere in PubMed. The word albumin was initially used to describe some types of plant proteins – mostly found in their seeds – which resemble egg albumin (12).
So-called plant albumins are broad category and we’re not aware of any research specifically about those in dragon fruit, at least related to cancer.
Lunasin, which comes from soybeans, you could call a phytoalbumin. It is being widely studied for anti-cancer properties, but we’re not aware of that one being found in any of these desert cacti (13).
The only piece of research out there on cancer and dragon fruit was done by a university in South Korea. It was published in 2011 (14).
They tested peel extracts from both red and white pitaya against cancer cell lines in Petri dishes, including;
- MCF-7 – Perhaps the most studied breast cancer cell line in research, it was originally isolated from a 69 year old white female in 1970.
- AGS – A line of stomach cancer cells which originate from a 54 year old white female.
For those two in particular, they claimed:
“Both peel extracts also showed stronger antiproliferative activity against AGS and MCF-7 cancer cells than either flesh extract.”
Again, no one eats the peel. And comparing the plant versus other parts of itself is not very useful. Why not compare it something like frankincense and cancer?
If this fruit does have any anti-cancer properties, it probably has nothing to do with the compounds which are antioxidants, because they also said:
“…no correlation observed between antioxidant activity and antiproliferative activity.”
So yes, if it’s happening, it might be caused by a protein.
One popular website claims it’s “jam-packed” with “flu-fighting” vitamin C. Whether or not that vitamin helps influenza is besides the point though, given that we’ve already shown it contains very little.
The flu is caused by a virus. Likewise the common cold. There is no research involving those. In fact, you won’t even find anything about dragon fruit being a natural anti-viral or antibiotic.
While not extreme, another website claims stunning health advantages thanks to the fruit’s vitamins and minerals. In addition to the cold and flu, they claim it helps asthma and respiratory infections. There’s literally nothing out there to even suggest those advantages.
You can call it an exotic fruit or tasty fruit, but you can’t call it a superfruit.
That’s not to say it’s bad for you though. In moderation, it’s a low calorie food. Excellent for snacking and as an oatmeal topper. The sugar content is reasonable. But can you be allergic to pitaya?
There have only been a couple case studies published of allergies to the red variety of this fruit (17) (18). Yes, the side effect of anaphylactic shock which was seen is terrible, but your chances of having a dragon fruit allergy like those two people did seems to be quite slim.
So it remains a good – albeit expensive – food choice for almost everyone. Just don’t be fooled by its undeserving superfood status.
Where to buy?
You don’t have to live in Mexico to enjoy it.
Today it is one of Vietnam’s most important crops and they export it throughout Asia. It’s also produced commercially in Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and more recently here in the US.
There are commercial operations growing them in California, Hawaii, Florida, Texas, and Arizona. However finding grocery stores which sell fresh dragon fruit remains a challenge. Given how perishable they are, you probably won’t find them far from where they were grown.
Even in major metropolitan areas where they are grown, like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix, your odds of finding them are slim.
Unless a store has the fresh for sale in your area, you will be limited to the shelf-stable dried varieties. They do make a great snack for on the go and are worth trying, especially if you have never tasted this peculiar looking food.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.