February 2019 Issue

Exotic Fruits: Lesser-Known Varieties That Pack
a Nutritional Punch

By Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 21, No. 2, P. 12

Exotic fruits from all over the world can now be found in most grocery stores, allowing consumers to experience global flavors without ever leaving their hometown. This article will explore the origins, nutrient profiles, and culinary applications of some not-so-familiar fruits that will pique consumers' interests and their taste buds' curiosity.

Native to the rain forests of the Western Ghats in India, jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) takes three to seven months to fully develop and ripen. The largest fruit grown on trees, it can measure up to 36 inches in length and weigh up to 100 lbs.1

The hefty fruit is known for its thorny green exterior and yellow interior flesh, known as bulbs, which have a texture similar to shredded meat and can be eaten raw, roasted, or mixed in dishes. The meaty texture has made jackfruit a popular ingredient for plant-based meat alternatives. The bulbs cover edible seeds, which can be roasted or boiled like chestnuts.2

Jackfruit can be found in many grocery stores and health food stores in its whole form as well as frozen, dried, and canned in a brine or syrup solution. Young, unripe jackfruit is used as a vegetable, whereas ripe or canned jackfruit in syrup is sweet like fruit and usually used for dessert.2

It has a subtle flavor, making it easy to pair with a variety of herbs and spices. The fruit can be used in a range of recipes, including most that call for shredded meat. Some popular culinary uses of jackfruit include soups and stews and taco filling. It also can be added to stir-fries, turned into vegan "crab" cakes, and formed into steaks, burgers, and "meat" balls.2,3

Nutritionally, jackfruit is a good source of fiber, immunity-boosting vitamins A and C, magnesium, and potassium. Although it's lower in protein than many other vegetarian meat substitutes, it has more protein than most fruit. One cup of sliced jackfruit contains 157 kcal, 3 g protein, 1 g fat, 38 g carbohydrate, and 2.5 g fiber.4,5

Prickly Pear
Often known as a cactus pear, the prickly pear (Opuntia) gets its name from the fact that it grows on cactus pads and is covered with the rough bumps and sharp spines for which cacti are known. This fruit isn't a member of the pear family, but is so named because of its resemblance in shape.6

Prickly pears are native to the United States and South and Central America but have made their way to Europe and Australia. Consumers must peel the tough exterior, which ranges from green to red, to get to the sweet, edible flesh inside, which they can eat raw, purée into juices, and cook into sauces. Because it's so sweet, the prickly pear often is used to make candies, juices, and jams. There are small, hard seeds throughout the prickly pear that consumers can't bite into, but they can swallow them or chew them with the flesh and spit them out. Prickly pears often are found in ethnic grocery stores, but some natural food stores also carry them.

The fruit is an excellent source of vitamin C and fiber, and some research shows it can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes and may help reduce inflammatory markers in the body.7,8 A one-cup serving of prickly pears contains 61 kcal, 1 g protein, 1 g fat, 14 g carbohydrate, and 5 g fiber.4

A highly esteemed fruit throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, the longan (Dimocarpus longan) is native to China and India and a relative of the lychee. This small, round fruit grows on trees and has a thin, rough-to-prickly removable shell called a pericarp that protects the edible juicy, white flesh.9

Similar in texture to grapes, longans have a mildly sweet taste and can be eaten raw, cooked in jams and puddings, blended into smoothies, added to cocktails, and chopped into salads. Longans can be found most often in Asian specialty stores, especially throughout winter. Longans are an excellent source of potassium and vitamin C. A 100 g serving (approximately 31 individual longans) contains 60 kcal, 1 g protein, 15 g carbohydrate, and 1 g fiber.4,9

Star Fruit
Named for its signature star shape upon slicing, this mildly sweet and slightly acidic fruit is native to Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia, but is now grown in the United States, Southeast Asia, and Malaysia as well. Star fruit (the fruit of the tree species Averrhoa carambola) has a crisp texture with a thin, edible skin, making it easy to eat whole without peeling or deseeding. The flavor of the fruit is a combination of plum, pineapple, apple, lemon, and grape.10

Individuals can eat star fruit raw as part of a fruit salad and as a yogurt topping. They also can blend it into smoothies. Star fruit can be added to stir-fries, served braised with chicken and fish, and baked into a cake.

Star fruit is generally available year round and can be found in most commercial grocery stores. A medium-sized star fruit contains 28 kcal and 2.5 g fiber and is an excellent source of vitamin C.4

Sapodillas (Manilkara zapota) are an almond-shaped fruit native to southern Mexico and the Yucatan, but they also have long been cultivated in Central America, the West Indies, Bermuda, the Philippines, and the Florida Keys. Sapodillas have a fuzzy brown skin and smooth, flat, brown seeds—both of which are inedible. The ripe flesh is soft, juicy, and sweet like a pear due to high fructose and sucrose content.

The fruit is best enjoyed when it's allowed to ripen at room temperature. It's ready to eat when the fruit has a slight give when lightly pressed.15

While clients may find sapodillas at a local farmers' market or specialty fruit store, the fruit isn't widely available. Some brands, such as Melissa's Produce, sell sapodillas from December to June. While they're most often enjoyed simply scooped out of the skin with a spoon, in Asia, sapodillas are a common ingredient in smoothies, ice cream, and jam.16 An excellent source of fiber and vitamin C, one medium sapodilla has 141 kcal, 1 g protein, 2 g fat, 34 g carbohydrate, and 9 g fiber.4

Native to China, this bite-sized fruit is now grown in Southeast Asia and the United States. Kumquats were given their own genus (Fortunella) in 1915, named after the horticulturist who introduced them to Europe in 1846.11 However, more recent research has placed them in the Citrus genus.

The kumquat resembles a miniature orange, with a sweet and sour flavor. Unlike other citrus fruits, the entire kumquat is edible—including the peel, which is responsible for the majority of the aroma and flavor.

Kumquats can be used in both sweet and savory applications. They can be added to salads, used to make salsa, cooked into jam and marmalade, baked in cakes, added to dressings and marinades, or paired with meat and poultry for a sweet and savory combination.11

Kumquats are available at specialty markets and farmers' markets primarily during the winter months from January to March or April. They're an excellent source of vitamin C and fiber—a 100 g serving (approximately five kumquats) contains 71 kcal, 2 g protein, 16 g carbohydrate, and 6.5 g fiber.4,12

There are numerous species and varieties of the persimmon (Diospyros), some native to China and others to North America. The most common species are the nonastringent Asian variety, known as the Fuyu persimmon. This variety, which can be eaten while still hard, resembles an underripe tomato with smooth, reddish-orange skin. The ripe fruit has a sweet and spicy flavor, which some describe as a blend of mango and papaya, whereas others say it tastes like a combination of apples and oranges. Fuyu persimmons are perfect to eat raw out of hand, add to salads, mix into yogurt or oatmeal, or make gazpacho.

Another variety of persimmons, known as astringent persimmons, requires full ripening before eating due to the tannic unripe flesh. These varieties often are picked hard and ripen on countertops or windowsills to a light orange hue before eaten. Some say the fruit should feel like a water balloon in your hand when ripe. Astringent persimmons are best baked, dried, or preserved.13,14

Fuyu persimmons are widely available in most commercial grocery stories from mid-fall through the winter months. One medium fruit is an excellent source of fiber and vitamins A and C, with 118 kcal, about 1 g protein, 31 g carbohydrate, and 6 g fiber.4

— Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, is a nationally recognized nutrition expert with a focus on culinary nutrition and communications. She's the author of 52-Week Meal Planner: The Complete Guide to Planning Menus, Groceries, Recipes, and More. You can read more of her articles and find her recipes at JessicaLevinson.com. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @jlevinsonrd.

1. Baliga MS, Shivashankara AR, Haniadka R, Dsouza J, Bhat HP. Phytochemistry, nutritional and pharmacological properties of Artocarpus heterophyllus Lam (jackfruit): a review. Food Res Int. 2011;44(7):1800-1811.

2. Berkoff N. Cooking with jackfruit. The Vegetarian Resource Group website. https://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2015issue1/2015_issue1_cooking_jackfruit.php. Published 2015. Accessed November 28, 2018.

3. Jackfruit. Purdue University Horticulture and Landscape Architecture website. https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/jackfruit_ars.html. Accessed November 28, 2018.

4. United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Food Composition Databases. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/. Updated April 2018. Accessed November 28, 2018.

5. Elliott B. Why is jackfruit good for you? Nutrition, benefits and how to eat it. Healthline website. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/jackfruit-benefits. Published January 26, 2018. Accessed November 28, 2018.

6. Opuntia. Wikipedia website. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opuntia. Updated January 4, 2019.

7. Bacardi-Gascon M, Dueñas-Mena D, Jimenez-Cruz A. Lowering effect on postprandial glycemic response of nopales added to Mexican breakfasts. Diabetes Care. 2007;30(5):1264-1265.

8. Attanzio A, Tesoriere L, Vasto S, Pinataudi AM, Livrea MA, Allegra M. Short-term cactus pear [Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) Mill] fruit supplementation ameliorates the inflammatory profile and is associated with improved antioxidant status among healthy humans. Food Nutr Res. 2018;62.

9. Longan. Specialty Produce website. https://www.specialtyproduce.com/produce/longan_674.php. Accessed November 29, 2018.

10. Star fruit. Specialty Produce website. https://www.specialtyproduce.com/produce/star_fruit_2002.php. Accessed November 29, 2018.

11. Kumquats. Specialty Produce website. https://www.specialtyproduce.com/produce/kumquats_906.php. Accessed November 29, 2018.

12. Kumquat: nutrition selection storage. Fruits & Veggies More Matters website. https://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/kumquat. Accessed November 29, 2018.

13. Persimmons. Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture website. https://cuesa.org/food/persimmons. Accessed November 29, 2018.

14. Fuyu persimmons. Specialty Produce website. https://www.specialtyproduce.com/produce/fuyu_persimmons_5574.php. Accessed November 29, 2018.

15. Sapodilla. Specialty Produce website. https://www.specialtyproduce.com/produce/Sapodilla_8433.php. Accessed November 29, 2018.

16. Sapodilla fruit. Melissa's website. https://www.melissas.com/Sapodilla-Fruit-p/1590.htm. Accessed November 29, 2018.