Originally grown in the warm, semiarid climate of the Mediterranean, figs found their way to the New World through Spanish missionaries, who by the mid-1700s had started planting them in Southern California.
Today almost all commercially grown figs in the United States grow in California, where the summers are long and dry. The most common varieties of fresh figs are Black Mission (with black or purple skins and pink flesh), Kadota (greenish-yellow skins and purple flesh), and Calimyrna (large greenish-yellow fruit). Each of the fresh varieties is available during a different period from June through September.
Because fresh figs last only about a week after harvest, almost 90% of the world’s fig crop is sold as dried fruit.
The nutritional value of dried figs is quite impressive. They have the highest fiber and mineral content of all the usual fruits, nuts or vegetables, and contain more calcium. In fact, by weight, they actually have more calcium than skim milk.
Figs are 80% higher in potassium than bananas and are extremely easy to digest. They also have more iron than most other fruits and are extremely high in magnesium. All of this for about 20 to 40 calories per fig. No wonder they are often called nature’s most nearly perfect fruit.
Look for figs that are richly colored, plump and unbruised. The aroma should be mild; if the fruit smells sour, it has started to spoil. It should be soft, but not mushy.
Dried figs are a great stand-alone snack but add flavor and texture to other dishes, such as trail mix, rice, salad and yogurt.
Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, or e-mail to email@example.com. Eating Smart appears occasionally in Health.