If you’re a fig lover, this next sentence may be hard for you to swallow. The figs you’re eating could have a dead wasp stuck in them. I know that probably makes you squirm, but it sounds more dramatic than it is. You may think the idea of wasps inside a fig is gross, but it’s actually pretty amazing to see how nature knows exactly what it needs to do to allow both plant and insect species to survive.
Figs and fig wasps have a mutually beneficial relationship — something that’s officially called mutualism1 — that developed over millions of years of evolution. They need each other to survive. Fig wasps help pollinate figs and, in turn, the figs provide a safe place for the wasps to lay their eggs. This relationship is crucial to a balanced ecosystem and is also crucial to you enjoying a fresh fig or that fig jam you love.
So, don’t let this tidbit of information make you shy away from eating figs. The fruit, or technically flower, is full of resistant starch, potassium and other nutrients such as magnesium and choline, that help keep you healthy.2 Plus, you’re probably already eating a lot of bugs without even realizing it. Read on to see what I mean.
Why Do Figs Need Wasps?
Figs are often eaten as a fruit, but they’re actually inverted flowers with a fascinating biology.3 Unlike other flowers that bloom and expand outwardly, fig flowers bloom inside the fig’s pod. Because the flowers are on the inside, they require a special system for pollination — and that’s where the female fig wasps come in.
Each flower produces a single fruit called an achene that’s composed of a single shell and a hard seed. Because several flowers grow inside the fig pod, there are also several of these hard-shelled fruits. That’s what gives fresh figs their seeded inside and signature crunch.
Female fig wasps enter a fig through small passageways called ostioles. The ostioles are so narrow that the fig wasps actually lose their wings and antenna when traveling through them.4 Because of this, they can get in the figs, but they usually cannot get out. That’s OK with them, though, because their sole purpose is reproduction.
There are female and male figs. The female figs are the ones we eat, while the male figs serve solely as a place for fig wasps to reproduce. Once inside a male fig, the females lay their eggs. Eventually the eggs hatch and then the baby male wasps dig tunnels through the fig so that the baby female wasps, covered in pollen, can escape and continue the cycle in another fig.5
However, if a fig wasp enters a female fig, she can’t lay her eggs. Instead, she pollinates the flowers inside the fig, but then stays behind, living out the rest of her maximum 48-hour life cycle,6 and dying inside the fig.7
So, Are There Dead Wasps in Figs?
The short answer to whether or not there are dead wasps inside your fig is: Maybe. Most figs grown in the U.S. are self-pollinating, which means they don’t need the wasps to grow. Karla Stockli, CEO of the California Fig Advisory Board, points out that more than 95% of the figs produced in California are self-pollinating and most of the figs that you can buy in the U.S. (100% of dried figs and 98% of fresh figs) come from California, which has the highest quality standards in the world.8
That’s one bit of good news. The other thing that may ease your mind is that the figs actually contain an enzyme called ficin that breaks down the exoskeletons of the wasps and turns them into protein. Technically, when you eat a fig, you could be eating protein that comes from a wasp, but you’re not likely to find an intact wasp carcass in the fig.
Even if you did find an intact wasp, it’s not like the wasps you’re probably picturing. Fig wasps are really small9 — about 1.5 millimeters in size — so you probably wouldn’t even notice them. For reference, a typical yellowjacket worker wasp is around 12 millimeters, while the queen can grow to about 19 millimeters.
Don’t Worry, You Already Eat Bugs
The other thing that may ease your mind (or not, depending on how you look at it) is that if you eat fresh fruit and vegetables, you’ve likely eaten thousands of bugs already.
According to a report by Terro, a pest control company in Pennsylvania, the average person can consume up to 140,000 insect parts each year.10 That’s because the FDA allows certain amounts of insects into the food supply. For example, a half-cup of frozen berries is legally allowed to contain two whole insects.
And those hops used to make beer? They get the go-ahead with 25,000 whole insects in a half-cup. While this may make you squirm, insects are actually a regular part of the diet in many places. Approximately 80% of people worldwide eat one or more of the different 1,700 edible insects as a source of protein.11 Some parts of the world, especially tropical countries, even consider them delicacies.12
They’re only considered gross in Western societies because we’re not accustomed to eating them and categorize them as pests instead of food. With animal agriculture, we also don’t really have a need for alternate protein sources, so we tend to shy away from edible insects.
Health Benefits of Figs
If you can get past the idea the idea that some of the figs you eat may have a wasp in them, there are a lot of reasons to include them in your diet. One medium sized fig is approximately 40 calories and provides 1.5 grams of fiber, in addition to an abundant amount of magnesium and choline, as well as vitamin B6, copper, pantothenic acid and folate. It’s also rich in beta carotene.13
Figs are a good source of potassium, which your body uses to control blood pressure and balance the sodium potassium ratio, and calcium. As you might expect, the nutritional value increases by weight as the fruit is dried. For instance, 100 grams provide 35 mg of calcium when fresh14 but 162 mg of calcium when dry.15
Since figs are high in fiber, they may act as a natural laxative. High-fiber foods also provide a feeling of fullness and one of the types of fiber in figs — resistant starch — acts as a natural prebiotic to support pre-existing beneficial bacteria in your gut.16 Resistant starch also helps control blood sugar, protect the kidneys and help the body use certain vitamins, like vitamin D — a combination that can help control diabetes and reduce diabetic complications.17
Resistant starch also increases satiety, helping to control body weight and reduce the risk of obesity. In one animal study, researchers found adding resistant starch to the diet of obese rats helped reduce body weight by as much as 40%.18
Another animal study evaluated the effects of figs, dates and pomegranates on neuroinflammation.19 They found daily administration of a supplement containing these three fruits decreased inflammatory cytokines and delayed formation of senile plaques. The researchers concluded the fruit mediated the reduction of cytokines and may be one mechanism that can help protect against neurodegenerative diseases.
Fig leaves may be as important nutritionally as the fruit itself as they have unique health benefits, including an ability to regulate blood sugar. In one study, patients given a decoction of fig leaves for one month were able to lower their average insulin dose by 12%.20
An animal study evaluating hypertriglyceridemia in rats used an administration of fig leaf decoction. While total cholesterol levels were unaffected, the fig decoction had a clear positive effect on lipid molecule breakdown.21
Figs, including the fruit, skin, leaves and pulps are also rich in antioxidants and phenolic compounds.22 These compounds help combat oxidative stress and can protect against age-related and chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome and obesity.23