Of all the studies on durian, probably the most research has been done on antioxidant content. And why not? Antioxidants are believed to do a whole bunch of really awesome things, like protect against heart disease and cancer, prevent strokes and Alzheimer’s disease, and even decrease the effects of normal aging. Read on for more reasons to keep eating the King of Fruit. I hope you like colorful graphs, because this post is full of them.
When antioxidants were discovered back in the 1990’s, they were thought to be a sort of panacea. The term “antioxidants” refers to a whole bunch of chemicals found in plants that all seem to protect the body from the ravages of free radicals, those electron snatching molecular rascals that damage cells, unfold proteins, spoil fats, and even injure DNA. But antioxidants are also “anti” more than oxidative stress; they’re also anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-allergen, antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and anti-general-bad-health. Basically, eating a diet rich in antioxidants is a good thing.
Now we know it’s a bit more complicated than just free radicals=bad, antioxidants=good, but scientists and pharmaceutical companies are still constantly searching for the next fashionable veggie derived chemical that can be extracted into a wonder pill. Now that the market for mangosteen rinds has largely been saturated, durian might be the next exotic fruit to hit superfruit stardom. And antioxidants are just one reason why.
Antioxidant Levels Compared to Other Fruit
It should be no surprise that durian is high in antioxidants. After all, a fruit that smells like blue cheese and toffee is probably a pretty complicated chemical cocktail. But even I was surprised at just how well durian stacks up against other fruits.
A study in 2011 titled “Antioxidant Properties and Bioactive Constituents of Some
Rare Exotic Thai Fruits and Comparison With Conventional Fruits” (whew, that’s a mouthful) compared the antioxidant contents of durian, mangosteen, snakefruit, mango, kiwi, and avocado. Fun fact: they used ripe Monthong durian from Chanthaburi province.
Since there are so many different chemical subgroups lumped under the term “antioxidant” the researchers tested for eight different commonly known antioxidant groups. I’ve chosen to graph the data for vitamin C, flavonoids, anthocyanins, and beta-Carotene. If you want more data, check out the link to the study at the end of this post.
Not just for keeping away colds, vitamin C is both an essential vitamin and a little understood antioxidant that may play a role in skin health and preventing cancer. Durian is a great source of vitamin C, which actually surprised me. When most of us think of
Vitamin C, we think of juicy, slightly acidic fruits like oranges,
strawberries and kiwis – not fatty creamy things like durian. Think again.
While durian doesn’t top the charts for Vitamin C content, it kicks mango and avocado’s exocarps and definitely holds its own against the mighty kiwi (which has twice as much vitamin C as an orange). True durian addicts are unlikely to contract scurvy.
Flavonoids are probably the most important antioxidant group. They’re frequently in news articles about why wine, chocolate, green tea, or coffee are actually good for you. Since durian often tastes like a combination of all of those, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that durian is really, really high in flavonoids when compared to other tropical fruits.
Yeah, that’s right. So much for mangosteen’s super-antioxidant powers. The edible portion of durian contains about 7 times the quantity of flavonoids as mangosteen flesh, in addition to being more delicious. Researchers in multiple studies (linked below) noted that durian was particularly high in quercetin and caffeic acid, the antioxidant in coffee which reportedly reduces inflammation and protects coffee drinkers, and apparently durian addicts, from viruses and tumors.
A type of flavonoid, anthocyanins are actually good for you and are NOT the cause for people’s problems when they consume alcohol with durian. Why they have trouble, we don’t know, but it’s definitely not because anthocyanins turn into poisonous cyanide when mixed with alcohol (and no, I did not make that myth up).
Anthocyanins are a group of chemicals that cause the purple or blue pigmentation that we all associate with antioxidant superfoods – like blueberries, pomegranate juice, and mangosteen rinds. Is anyone else surprised that durian actually has a higher content of anthocyanins than mangosteen? Of course, the buzz is all about the mangosteen rind, not the pearly white edible portion. Personally, I’d rather eat durian anyway.
We’ve all heard of beta-Carotene, the phytonutrient that gives carrots, papayas, and the occasional raw foodist their orange glow. A precursor to Vitamin A, beta-Carotene is said to improve eyesight, support the immune system, and may help people recover from (or even prevent) cancer.
Mango is the clear victor in the beta-Carotene department, but durian does pretty darn well, beating out all the other fruits. Of course, other varieties of durian could score higher. This study used Monthong, one of the palest durian cultivars. Like in all fruit, darker yellow or orange coloration signals higher beta-Carotene levels. Who knows, a very colorful durian like Musang King or orange graveolens could give the mighty mango a run for its money, beta-Carotene-wise. Which brings us to the next topic:
Durian Variety and Antioxidants
One of the great things about durian is that it has so much variety. Even within one species, Durio zibethinus, durians range from white to cream, pale pink or orange and flavors that run the gamut from vanilla frosting to wine or garlic. It’s perfectly logical that their antioxidant content varies too.
So which durian variety should you eat to get the most antioxidants? It may not be what you’re thinking.
Two studies have compared the antioxidant content of different durian varieties; one in Malaysia, and one in Thailand. The Thai study (which oddly was conducted by researchers in Israel, South Korea, Chile, and Poland) looked at the five prominent Thai durians: Monthong,
Chanee, Ganyao, Kradumthong, and Puangmanee. The durians were collected at a market in Bangkok, and had probably been off the tree several days. I for one was shocked at their results.
According to this group’s research, the insipidly over bred Monthong wins every category for antioxidants, hands down. Not only does Monthong have more total polyphenols, it also has more total flavonoids AND more anthocyanins. And that, despite being a pale, overly sweet and mild durian! I am still flabbergasted. I can’t think why I am so shocked, since I know very little about how antioxidants work. But Monthong – really?
The nutrient they didn’t look at was b-Carotene, the orange pigment. I assume that Puangmanee, a nearly orange durian, has just got to be higher in b-carotene, right?
It’s not clear. The research by the Malaysian team used mostly white or pale durians, with just one “reddish” fruit (which really means sorta orange). These durians were collected in 2010 at Bao Sheng’s Durian Farm on Penang. Knowing Bao Sheng, the durians he would have provided to the research teams would have been perfect – perfectly ripe, sweet, and fresh. Who knows, maybe he even gifted one of his mouth-tingling “Durian in Black” to science. I for one, would not be that generous.
This group was nice enough to graph their findings for me, so I’ve snatched this little excerpt from page 55 of the journal article, which is linked to below. I was comforted to see that Ang Jin, one of my favorite Malaysian durians with a pretty, orange-pink glow, was highest in total flavonoids. But it didn’t top the chart for carotenoids.
That honor belongs to D11 (Durian Hijau/Green Skin), a creamy yellowish durian said to be out of this world, but which doesn’t look particularly special. If I’ve ever had it, it didn’t leave an impression. The other two durians I actually had to look up. Chaer Phoy is another green skinned durian, a small dark green ball with white flesh. Yah Kang is the famous “centipede durian,” whose white flesh is said to taste like white chocolate. All are pale in color, and considered more sweet than bitter. I guess Bao Sheng didn’t want to waste his Red Prawn or Musang King on science.
Ultimately, the only people who care which variety of durian has the most antioxidants is the pill companies. The rest of us can just keep eating our favorite durians, content to know that all durians are naturally rich in different ratios of antioxidants. But just one more detail for fun:
Ripe Durians Have More Antioxidants
Once again, this should be no surprise, but it’s a great fact to share with your Thai friends next time they make fun of you for liking your durian too “suk suk.” A research team in Thailand decided to measure the antioxidant content of Monthong at various stages of ripeness. All the fruits were picked on the same day at what the Thais consider “mature”.
Durians labeled “Mature” were tested one day later, when they had no smell and were hard and crunchy. “Ripe” fruits were allowed to ripen for 5 days off the tree until they began to smell like durian and the flesh was soft, how most people prefer to eat it. The “Overripe” durians were left for 8 days until they smelled strongly and were quite smushy. By graphing the data, it’s pretty easy to see that the perfectly ripe fruits had the most antioxidants.
It’s one more incentive to hunt for the perfect durian – the one that has hit its peak sugar, flavor and antioxidant load without beginning to ferment or break down in the intense tropical sun. Not only are they more delicious that way, they’re also apparently better for you.
In some countries, durian is thought of as a natural junk food. Believed to be high in fat, sugar, or even cholesterol (it’s not), people who live in Asia try to limit or even avoid consuming durian. That may be the wrong way to go.
More studies are needed, but current research indicates that the antioxidants (or something) in durian actually helps control cholesterol levels, protects the liver, and may prevent development of atherosclerosis. In vitro studies on mice given durian as part of their daily regiment (while being fed diets high in cholesterol) reported lower blood lipid levels than mice not fed durian.
To that aim, researchers are looking at the possibility of using either durian flesh or the polysaccharide gel (that gooey stuff along the inside of the shell), cholesterol medication. Now that is a good reason to enjoy durian, guilt free.
- Antioxidant properties and bioactive constituents of some rare exotic Thai fruits and comparison with conventional fruits: In vitro and in vivo studies Food Research International 44 (2011) 2222–2232
- Positive effects of durian fruit at different stages of ripening on the hearts and livers of rats fed diets high in cholesterol Food and Chemical Toxicology 46 (2008) 581–589
- Estimation of Antioxidant Content in Four Varieties of Durian Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research 6 (5): 465-471, 2010
- Screening of the antioxidant and nutritional properties, phenolic contents and proteins of five durian cultivars. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, August 2008; 59(5)
Wonderful read. Shocked about the Monthong as well.
Been eating 2-3 per day in Bali and happy to know its (probably) still healthy.
[email protected] says
Yeah no need to be scared of durian! But like all foods, make sure to eat a wide diversity. Anything in too much quantity isn’t good (papayas will turn you orange if you eat too many, like carrots)
Francis Chung says
Congrats for a very well researched and interesting post. With all the facts before us, not only we can indulge in the durian without feeling guilty but reassured we are eating right. Hail to the King of Fruits! You're indeed perfectly unique in every way.