If you rolled a watermelon, a beet and a strawberry together, at least flavor-wise, you’d get a pitaya. Juice shop dwellers have likely seen a rise in the bright magenta fruit’s presence thanks to Pitaya Plus, the first and only company to export it to the U.S. Rich in magnesium, antioxidants, vitamins C and B as well as active enzymes, pitaya also helps neutralize free radicals (i.e., you end up with younger-looking skin), boosts energy, immunity and aids in digestion since it contains both fiber and probiotics.
While it has fast become a favorite for bowls and smoothies among the health-conscious set, it’s important to note that pitaya is not, as many claim, the same as dragon fruit. “Pitaya was first discovered in Central America, missionaries brought it to Asia. The Asians began cultivating it and gave it the artificial name ‘dragon fruit’ because they look like little fireballs,” explains Pitaya Plus co-founder Chuck Casano. “A huge difference between most of the dragon fruit from Asia and pitayas is that ours are all red in the middle and the Asian ones are white. Like any fruit, the deeper the color, the more nutrients and flavor it will have. That’s why pitayas not only taste so good, but are so nutrient-dense.”
More impressively, pitayas aren’t just good for your health because every time you enjoy the Instagram-friendly superfood, you’re actually supporting local Nicaraguan farmers. To find out more about the health and socioeconomic benefits of this antioxidant-rich superfood, we chatted a bit more with Casano.
theFashionSpot: How did you discover pitaya? What made you become so passionate about it?
Chuck Casano: In 2008, I was working in Nicaragua for a NGO when I first came across it. Pitaya is a super fruit indigenous to Central America that is best known for its rich magenta-colored insides and innumerable health benefits. It looks like a big pink flaming artichoke, so it really sticks out on the fruit stand.
During my time in Nicaragua, I saw first hand the impoverished living conditions, lack of infrastructure and numerous struggling single mothers. Simultaneously, I witnessed the locals eating raw pitaya or mixing it into a refreshing and hydrating juice, and believed there was a way to export pitaya to America and in turn, help to enhance the livelihoods of single Nicaraguan mothers.
The more I learned about pitaya and how it could help the local economy, the more passionate I became about it. In 2010, I teamed up with my co-founder Ben Hiddlestone to develop Pitaya Plus and create the first supply chain for pitaya in Nicaragua, creating jobs for the community and opening local farmers to new markets.
We work with Nicaraguan communities to promote sustainable organic farming, create jobs in the poverty-stricken areas from which pitaya is sourced and produce the healthiest products possible with minimal processing. By bringing it to international markets, the farmers can earn more than if they just sold the fruit in their local markets. It has been really fun watching us grow from 15 farms to helping establish nearly 300 USDA Certified Organic farms in the communities and creating over 150 new jobs for local Nicaraguan single mothers.
tFS: What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to introducing something “new?”
CC: When introducing a new product to the marketplace, it’s all about education. We are lucky that it blends up electric pink and you can’t walk down the street with a pitaya smoothie or bowl in your hand without someone asking what it is. Social media has also been key to us spreading awareness of the benefits of pitaya. It’s a beautiful lunch to “share,” so we have been able to gain exposure through social media as well. One of my goals was always to turn an exotic fruit into a convenient product that people can use in their everyday life for snacking, smoothies, bowls, baking, salads, etc., which is why Pitaya Plus comes in smoothie packs and 12-ounce cube packs.
tFS: What ingredients does pitaya mix best with?
CC: I love blending pitaya, watermelon and a few mint leaves. There is nothing better than that on a hot day or after a workout.
tFS: Any other superfoods we should be incorporating into our diet?
CC: Nuts are amazing superfoods, specifically Brazil nuts. Brazil nuts contain a significant amount of selenium, a trace element your body needs to function properly. Selenium acts as an antioxidant, which means it protects your cells from damage caused by exposure to toxins and other harmful substances.