If you’re from India, China, Thailand, or Indonesia, chances are you’ve eaten your fair share of mangoes. But if you live in the United States, you may not be as familiar with this sweet, juicy tropical fruit or its many health benefits. So come with us as we uncover everything you need to know about mangoes and why you might just want to include them in your next fruit salad or chutney.
Mangoes are a type of stone fruit and belong to the genus Mangifera. While there are approximately 70 different Mangifera species, the most common is Mangifera indica, many varieties of which are now cultivated all over the world.
The tropical mango trees, which can grow to heights of 100 feet or more and live for 300 years, originated on the Indian subcontinent and are thought to have been domesticated in India around 2,000 BCE.
Mango seeds are believed to have traveled with explorers from Asia to the Middle East, Africa, and possibly even South America as early as 300 or 400 CE. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that mangoes made their way to Hawaii, Florida, and then California.
The mango fruit has now become so popular that it’s grown everywhere the weather remains warm and frost-free.
Mangoes have also been venerated throughout history. In Indian culture, mangoes are a symbol of life and are used in most sacred rituals. Likewise, offering a basket of mangoes is a sign of friendship and loyalty. Mangoes have even been linked to Buddha, who is believed to have meditated in a mango grove.
In fact, mangoes are beloved by so many that they’re now honored as the national fruit in several countries, including India, Haiti, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
India is also the world’s largest producer of mangoes, while China, Thailand, Pakistan, and Mexico round out the top five.
Mango Varieties: What’s the Difference?
Of the more than 1,000 different mango varieties, the most commonly sold in the United States is the Tommy Atkins—a large, reddish-orange cultivar whose fibrous nature is bemoaned by mango aficionados as poorly representative of its species.
But if you’re an American itching to try your first mango or are simply on the hunt for the best the United States has to offer, several other varieties are available as well, including:
- Ataulfo: This variety turns yellow when ripe.
- Keitt: This variety actually turns green when ripe.
- Haden: When ripe, this variety becomes mostly yellow with shades of red, pink, and orange.
- Kent: This variety doesn’t display any distinct color variations when it ripens, though it does become soft.
If you’re at your local market and all you find are unripe mangoes, you don’t have to walk on by. All you need to do to turn those unripe fruits into sweet, juicy, ripe mangoes is take them home and leave them out at room temperature until they ripen.
Or, if you’re in a rush, just wrap them up in a paper bag and leave them overnight. Like other fruits, mangoes release a plant hormone called ethylene, which triggers the ripening process. As the levels of ethylene gas build up in the enclosed area of the paper bag, the ripening process accelerates. And if you add other fruits to the bag as well, you’ll have even more ethylene gas available to ripen those mangoes in no time.
But even unripe mangoes have their place. In fact, many cultures use green mangoes to make pickles.
Mangoes and Poison Ivy … What?!
You may be surprised to learn that mangoes belong to the same family (Anacardiaceae) that includes cashews and poison ivy. What’s more, the skin of mangoes contains the same chemical (urushiol) that causes the maddeningly itchy, blistering rash of poison ivy, oak, and sumac.
So if you’re severely allergic to one of these unpleasant members of the plant kingdom, contact with mango skin may cause a similar reaction—though the flesh doesn’t contain the chemical and is perfectly fine to eat.
Health Benefits of Mangoes
Mangoes are rich in a wide array of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B6, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, folate, riboflavin, copper, magnesium, and potassium. What’s more, they’re packed with beneficial phytonutrients, including the polyphenols quercetin and catechin and the carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene.
Like most fruits, mangoes are also low in fat and sodium and high in fiber, which offsets their sugar content and gives them a low to moderate score on the glycemic index.
The vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals in mangoes are why they’re known in many parts of the world as the “king of fruits.” In fact, they’ve been a revered part of Ayurveda for at least 3,000 years. And now modern science is backing up what ancient cultures have known for centuries.
So what are the health benefits of mangoes, you ask?
Let’s find out!
Mangoes and Heart Health
In addition to magnesium and potassium, which help keep the heart muscle strong and blood vessels relaxed, thus lowering blood pressure, mangoes are rich in antioxidants. These important compounds protect against oxidative stress and inflammation, which are known risk factors for heart disease. An antioxidant specific to mangoes called mangiferin has also been shown in studies to protect the heart against myocardial injury.
In addition, mangoes are high in fiber, pectin, and vitamin C, all of which have been shown to lower levels of LDL cholesterol—the so-called bad cholesterol. A 2011 study even found that freeze-dried mangoes reduced fat tissue and lowered cholesterol levels in mice fed high-fat diets as effectively as the popular cholesterol-lowering drug fenofibrate.
Mangoes for Skin and Hair
Mangoes are exceptionally rich in vitamin C, which is necessary for the production of collagen—the main component of connective tissue and the most abundant protein in the body. Collagen is the substance that helps keep joints flexible and hair, skin, and blood vessels healthy.
The many antioxidants in mangoes—including vitamin A—also help protect the skin and hair follicles from free radicals that lead to oxidative damage and premature aging.
Mangoes and Eye Health
Mangoes have significant amounts of vitamin A, which is essential for eye health and can help prevent night blindness. But perhaps their greatest contribution to healthy eyes is their carotenoids—specifically lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene—which have been shown in studies to help protect the retinas from damage by free radicals, which can lead to macular degeneration.
Mangoes May Help Prevent Cancer
One of the most promising benefits of mangoes is their ability to help protect the body against certain types of cancer.
Many forms of cancer, including colon, lung, prostate, and breast cancers, are influenced by oxidative stress and can be triggered by chronic inflammation. However, antioxidants have been found in multiple studies to neutralize the free radicals that cause the oxidative stress that leads to inflammation.
What’s more, numerous studies have found that many of the antioxidants in mangoes can prevent the growth and progression of cancer cells and even cause cancer cell death.
Mangoes May Help Prevent Diabetes
As mentioned, the high fiber content of mangoes gives them a low to moderate score on the glycemic index, which means they won’t adversely affect your blood sugar. In fact, the same 2011 study mentioned earlier found that mice fed freeze-dried mangoes also experienced a decrease in blood sugar levels comparable to that seen with the hypoglycemic medication rosiglitazone.
While these results need to be verified in human studies, they could indicate a role for mangoes in the diet of individuals fighting insulin resistance.
The leaves of the mango plant also contain polyphenols called anthocyanins, which are known to decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes and prevent complications in those already diagnosed with the condition.
Traditional Chinese medicine has intuitively made use of anthocyanins for blood sugar control for centuries. And now that more and more grocery stores are carrying mango leaves, you can try this ancient remedy yourself. Simply boil 10 to 15 fresh leaves in 4 to 5 ounces of water and let sit overnight. Drink the concoction the next day, prior to eating, and repeat for the next 2 to 3 months.
Mangoes and Digestive Health
Like papayas, mangoes contain large quantities of digestive enzymes. In the case of mangoes, the enzyme in greatest supply is amylase, which helps break down starches. Enzymes are required by the body to digest the food we eat, so including the fresh fruit with a meal may improve digestion.
The high fiber and water content of mangoes can also contribute to a healthy digestive system by aiding in the prevention of constipation and diarrhea.
Mangoes and the Immune System
As you’ve probably gathered by now, the phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals that make mangoes so good for your heart—and potentially effective in preventing cancer—may help keep your immune system healthy too. So if you have the urge to load up on mangoes during the next cold and flu season, don’t be afraid to give in to your craving. It may just be the boost your immune system needs.
Although fresh mangoes tend to be more readily available in the spring and summer, luckily, we now have many frozen options too. So whether you buy them fresh or frozen, slice them up and eat them right out of the skin, toss them into chutney or salsa, or add them to oatmeal or Thai sticky rice, mangoes are a sweet tropical treat that can’t be beat!