Figs are among the oldest fruits consumed by humans. Not only have fig trees, Ficus species, witnessed human history, they have also shaped and enriched our history. Buddha found enlightenment under a fig tree; they turn up in Hindu and Greek myths; Egyptian Pharaohs took dried figs to their graves to sustain their soles; Adam and Eve likely ate a fig, not an apple, in the Garden of Eden. No other fruit, or fruit tree, has held such a sway over human imagination, featuring in every major religion, influencing royalty, scientists, artists, and soldiers.
Ficus species are biologically surprising. While most flowering plants display their blooms, Ficus species have no apparent flowers. They hide their blooms away inside their hollow figs. A fig then, is not technically a fruit, but a hollow ball of inverted flowers and seeds that must be pollinated by tiny wasps; in Chinese, the fig is called “fruit without flowers.”
Botanical illustration of a fig tree from 1751
Particularly intriguing, are strangler fig species which colonize a host tree. After strangler fig seeds are dropped high on other trees by birds or passing mammals, strangler figs envelope their host tree with thick, woody roots. The image of a strangler fig tree rests on the Indonesian coat of arms, as a symbol of unity and diversity. The tree’s dangling roots symbolize the many islands of Indonesia.
Fig trees are symbolic too in other Asian countries and cultures. Ficus benghalensis, the Indian Banyan, appears in much of its folklore. In the ancient text, the Bhagavad Gita, the God Krishna tells that, “one who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.” In Hinduism, the Banyan tree is a reflection of the spiritual world: one’s roots are high above, with God, and one’s branches, the many facets of living, are below.
Hundreds of years after the Vedas, when Alexander the Great arrived in India in 326 BCE, he and his soldiers enjoyed the shade of the Banyan tree. Some Banyans can shelter 20,000 people.
Beyond their sheltering abilities, many have also recorded Ficus species’ healing abilities. In the Bible, when Hezekiah, King of Judah, was sick with boils, his servants applied a paste of crushed figs on his skin. 1st Century Roman Philosopher, Pliny the Elder, wrote of figs as “the best food that can be taken by those who are brought low by long sickness.” Researches have even observed Chimpanzees self medicating against bacteria, parasites, and tumors, with wild fig bark and leaves.
Today figs, high in fiber, calcium, iron, and potassium, are used in medicines and prepared in foods for healing and health. In Bengal, the fruit is called Dumur, and believed to be good for heart ailments. Interestingly, both the leaves and natural latex from fig plants have been shown to exhibit antitumor activities against multiple human cancers. And most commonly, figs are used for their fiber content to aid digestion.
One company that has profited off the digestive benefits of figs is Nabisco. Their Fig Newtons, fig rolls filled with fig paste produced through an extrusion process, were first baked in 1891 and been marketed as a delicious solution for digestion issues. Though since their introduction, people have expressed skepticism towards the actual health benefits of Nabisco’s Fig Newtons: are they really as healthy as fresh figs? Or are they just sugar-filled cakes, cookies, disguised as a superfood?
Here’s how a Rip Van Wafel stacks up against a Fig Newton:
While snacking on a Fig Newtons may spare you 10 calories, this snack also has 9 grams more sugar than a Rip Van Wafel. Whatever the historical healing benefits of figs are, the excess sugar content of Nabisco’s Fig Newtons reverses essentially each of those benefits.
At Rip Van Wafels, we set out to do one thing and one thing only: to improve people’s lives by inventing better, healthier, and more convenient snacks that are low in sugar and uniquely amazing. We aren’t saying don’t eat figs, but if you want a cookie, the healthy choice is Rip Van!