Home » Are Tropical Fruits the Most Important Food for Human Health? The Evolutionary Secret in Nutrition.

Are Tropical Fruits the Most Important Food for Human Health? The Evolutionary Secret in Nutrition.

High-fruit diets have become more popular due to a growing community reporting about the health benefits they experience. Discover why tropical fruits are essential – not only for the success of a high-fruit diet – but also why they are the most important food in any healthy diet! So let’s explore the natural human diet and the evolutionary history we share with tropical fruits:

For quick readers:

Tropical fruits are essential for health, but are severely overlooked

Why are tropical fruits so important for a healthy human diet? We are, biologically, tropical frugivores and thus need the nutrition that ripe tropical fruits provide. Humans evolved with tropical fruits as their primary food source: As a frugivorous species that originated in tropical Africa, we have specific adaptations as specialized fruit-eaters. Tropical fruits also make up the bulk of the chimpanzee’s diet and of all other great apes. Studying our similarities, we just might learn a lot about ourselves and our natural diet!

Fruits from temperate zones cannot substitute tropical fruits as they have another nutritional profile and another evolutionary history. Tropical fruits are generally fleshy and sweet and thus provide energy and nutrient-rich nutrition – the nutrition that we have evolved to get. Temperate fruits are more acidic and watery, and most were not edible before cultivation and selective breeding.

Unfortunately, the benefits of tropical fruits are not yet as well studied as temperate fruits, and, more importantly, tropical fruits are rarely emphasized as a staple food in the human diet. Quite to the contrary, newer dietary trends not only fight a war on all sugar but even advise against too much fruit or sweet fruits. This questionable trend runs counter to a growing body of scientific research, which – albeit only starting to scratch the surface – step by step unveils tropical fruits as hidden treasures for health.

“Tropical and subtropical fruits may be considered as a very important source of nutrients and bioactive compounds, mainly flavonoids and non-flavonoid phenolics.”

Sayago-Ayerdi et al., 2021

“…virtually unknown edible tropical fruits present significantly higher antioxidant activity when compared to temperate fruits considered to be good sources of antioxidants.”

Pereira-Netto, 2018

High-carb diets are the healthiest for humans!

A high-carb diet is healthy when we keep it natural by eating high-quality, fresh, raw foods! The human metabolism depends on sugars as the primary source of energy – our cell’s fuel. Simple sugars are the most readily available energetic macro-nutrients for our metabolic processes.

But, why should we focus on a high-carb, fruit-based diet in times of high-protein diets, raw meat eating being a thing, and over ten years of witch-hunting simple carbs (even from fruits)? Because it is more crucial than ever to know what the natural human diet is, in these times of fabricated new fad diets! After all, we do have a species-appropriate diet, just like any other species! A fruit-based way of eating is not a random new diet, it is choosing foods according to human frugivorous biology.

Simple carbs do not deserve the bad reputation!

From a biological perspective, the human organism is adapted to obtain energy from simple carbs from fruits. Yes, simple sugars from natural sources are the optimal energy carrier for our cells. Glucose (and in many cells also fructose) is needed for vital functions in our cells and body (read more here). 

In nutritional sciences, it is well-known that overeating proteins have various damaging effects, while studies that fruits are beneficial are mounting. Therefore, hopefully, the days of protein shakes may soon be counted.

And there is a silver lining, as the war on carbs might be history soon – the scientific community is rediscovering the benefits of high-carb diets and the role of tropical fruits in health (find one example here). Also, for physical performance and regeneration, as described by a recent study: “Overall, tropical fruits can aid sports performance by improving physical strength, increasing the recovery in injury, attenuating muscle soreness, and reducing fatigue.”(Chabib L. at al., 2020)

A fruit-based diet is nothing new – it’s natural!

The benefits of high-fruit diets are nothing new in ancient human knowledge! For example, fruit “fasting” is known to boost the self-regeneration of the human body in Indian tradition.

However, because there are pro and contra arguments for almost everything in science, there is a labyrinth of nutritional information that confuses people! Here is where biology jumps in: biology does not lie about dietary features and hence is a compass within the diet jungle! And here comes a well-kept secret that our morphology and physiology reveals if you are open-minded to new inputs:

Human dietary biology resembles that of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees! Let this sink in for a moment: the human biology is most similar to that of a tropical frugivore (see below)! Therefore our species-appropriate diet is made of mainly tropical fruits.

Humans originally are tropical frugivores (the secret)

Why are tropical fruits our superfruits? Because we are tropical frugivores, a species that originated in the tropics and specialized in eating a high-fruit diet! Aren’t we omnivores? Yes, but, like Chimpanzees, we are frugivorous omnivores:

“It is important to realize that, though Primates are viewed as omnivorous, they are omnivores of a very particular type in that the great majority of their foods each day come from plants.”

K. Milton, 2004

Human ancestors were all highly frugivorous. Our species originated in tropical Africa, and – like all apes – our dietary biology is that of a specialized fruit-eater. For example, the diet of chimpanzees contains around 70% tropical fruits, and, depending on food availability, they eat exclusively fruits.

Humans have adaptations typical for frugivores: we are specialized fruit-eaters!

Like chimpanzees and all the other great apes, humans have distinct adaptations for eating fruit: a few examples are complex hands for fruit handling, dental structure, digestive anatomy, and our positive sensory experience with ripe fruits (attractive look, smell, and taste). We instinctively know that fruits are good for food. Thus, we should start learning from chimpanzees in the wild, as suggested by K. Milton (1999):

“Anthropoids, including all great apes, take most of their diet from plants, and there is general consensus that humans come from a strongly herbivorous ancestry. Though gut proportions differ, overall gut anatomy and the pattern of digestive kinetics of extant apes and humans are very similar.”

K. Milton

Humans also have specialized biochemical features that evolved due to fruit-eating, which are fascinating and hard to deny. For example, the loss of vitamin C genes is a unique trait shared by highly frugivorous animals. The mutation has occurred analogously in those birds, bats, guinea pigs, and primates that take in a lot of external vitamin C through their diet, which made internal vitamin C production non-vital. Another example is the trichromatic specialized color vision (optimal to detect fruits) shared with our primate family.

Not convinced yet, but interested? Check out our in-depth article on the frugivorous adaptations of humans!

Watch this video of humans and chimps eating tropical fruits together – the similarity of dietary preferences is fascinating!

Humans have co-evolved with tropical fruits

Like our primate family, being frugivores, we have co-evolved with tropical foods as our primary food source, and as their seed dispersers over an evolutionary timeline (see more here).

Sweet tropical fruits have evolved with primates (including human ancestors) as consumers and seed dispersers. The fruits are shaped by the consumer and their preferences over time because the frugivore disperses those seeds that it likes more often. The coevolutionary processes (the animal also adapts to its food source) result in a nutritional “match” – which is what we call the species-specific foods and natural diet!

In comparison, most temperate fruits – and even sub-tropical fruits – that we know today, were originally much smaller and acidic, and were not fit for human consumption, before humans bred them to exhibit more traits that resemble tropical fruits (sweeter and bigger).

Some temperate fruits – vegetable fruits – were actually highly toxic for humans before breeding and hybridization!

Frugivorous primates need ripe tropical fruits

On a fruit-based diet, our primary food source has to be tropical fruits to get enough nutrition. Otherwise, we need to substitute or integrate nutrition from cooked foods – our survival foods in colder climates. This is just what our ancestors did when migrating out of the tropics into drier and colder areas. Read also here why humans have not adapted much of their dietary biology since migrating out of their tropical habitat.

It is no surprise that tropical fruits are far more nutritious than plants from other climates. Only tropical forests provide enough nutritious fruits throughout the year to sustain bigger frugivorous mammals, including frugivorous primates, which – for this reason – are exclusively found in the tropics.

It is important to note that fruits are more nutritious and healthy when fully ripe. Only ripe tropical fruits provide the amount of nutrition we need, because during the ripening process, the fruit chemically and nutritionally gets transformed and ready for its consumer (the seed-dispersing animal). Thus, it is crucial to eat fully ripened fruit on a fruit diet! Frozen fruits and bananas can help if it is difficult to access them locally. Strive for air-imported tropical fruits. Eat your fruits ripe to get all the nutrition you need!

Nutrition of tropical fruits

Tropical fruits are superior to temperate fruits as a food for humans in more than one aspect: they are bigger, more nutritious, and available all year round – plus, primates have co-evolved with tropical fruits as a food source.

Low in toxicity and antinutrients

Most tropical fruits are edible in the wild, and “beyond their macro- and micronutrient contents, the edible and non-edible parts of tropical fruits are an important source of numerous bioactive compounds including carotenoids, sterols and stanols, phenolic compounds such as flavonoids and non-flavonoids phenolics, and the dietary fiber content.” (Sayago-Ayerdi et al., 2021).

High in energy and amino acids

Tropical fruits naturally contain more energetic macronutrients – like simple sugars, fats, and amino acids – than temperate fruits. Tropical fruits contain up to 3.5 g of protein per 100 g, while temperate fruits usually contain much less protein. The nutritional “inferiority” is because temperate fruits were bread from being small and acidic fruits into bigger and sweeter fruits than their wild type – in order to be more suitable for human consumption. Most tropical fruits, on the other hand, have evolved naturally with primates and have remained more similar to the original, natural genotype (read more here).

High in micronutrients

In general, tropical fruits contain (almost) all macro- and micronutrients that the body needs to function and regenerate effectively, including lesser-known (but not less important) nutrients like silica, boron, sulfur (i.e., durian fruit), chromium, manganese (i.e., açaí berry), iron, selenium and more:

“Many fruits and unconventional foods are available in the tropics and represent valuable minerals sources. Green leaves appear as outstanding mineral sources, especially in calcium and iron, followed by nuts. “

Leterme et al. (2006)

Different types of fruits contain micronutrients in different proportions and quantities, depending on their composition and if it is a fatty, watery, sweet, acidic, or vegetable fruit (see categories here).

As an example serves this detailed analysis of the nutrient composition of mangoes: “mango may provide enough amount of essential minerals for human health, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium.” (Maldonado-Celis et al. 2019). Bananas are a good source of potassium and magnesium. Most tropical fruits have high quantities of vitamin C, especially acidic ones, which can boost the immune system and improve recovery after exercise. Orange-colored fruits, like mangoes and papaya, contain beta-carotene (precursor of vitamin A), which gives those fruits their color. Fatty fruits provide more fat-soluble vitamins, and overall tropical fruits are a perfect source of omega-3 fatty-acids.

Tropical fruits

Tropical fruits are fleshy and sweet: durian, açai, lychee, mango, mangosteen, papaya, etc., generally have different nutritional compositions than temperate fruits.

And, especially wildly grown fruits that have not been overly cultivated, are nutrient-dense (like açai berries from the Amazonian region), smell and taste intense, and not to forget, they attract us with their looks.

Temperate fruits

Temperate fruits, and some sub-tropic fruits, are often more acidic and watery than tropical fruits. On a fruit diet, many jump in and go to the astringent “detoxifying” fruits. Temperate fruits taste and look good, but they have been cultivated intensely “look” this way and to be palatable and appealing to us. They do have many healthy properties but cannot sustain a bigger mammalian body nutritionally.

If you live in a temperate climate, locally grown temperate fruits are a good add to tropical ones, but they cannot be the main food in a fruit diet.

Most wild temperate fruits are eaten by birds (seed dispersers) or in some cases, by smaller mammals. What seems like a detail, turns out to be an impactful topic if we aim to understand the natural human diet! Humans have not evolved in cold habitats, and thus, the local food sources mismatch the human evolutionary background. We are a dislocated tropical species. Read more here.

The reason why tropical fruits extraordinarily nutrient-rich

Tropical fruits can assimilate and produce more nutrients than plants from colder climates, because the plants grow under “easy” environmental conditions: constant warm and moist conditions throughout the year are optimal for plants to continuously fix carbon and produce abundant energy for growth, flowering, and fruit building all without the extensive challenges and limitations of cold climates.

Tropical abundance stands in contrast to colder or dry climates. In sub-tropical and temperate climates, conditions are more stressful and harsh. Specific and costly adaptations are required to withstand droughts or ice. Thus, only well-adapted plants can survive. The ecological limitations – temperature, sunlight, and water availability – do not allow for such a bountiful sugar (energy) assimilation as found in tropical plants and fruits! Thus, plants in colder areas often present smaller and more acidic or watery fruits, which are perfect for birds or smaller mammals.

Read more about the benefits of tropical fruits here.

Experiencing good tropical fruits could change our view on fruit-based diets

The importance of tropical fruits for humans, unfortunately, is not common knowledge. Especially in times of the war against sugar – which goes as far as recommending against eating larger amounts of sweet fruits – it is important to raise awareness that tropical fruits are our natural, species-appropriate foods! Due to our frugivorous ancestry, the human anatomy and physiology (including digestion) are specialized and well-adapted to tropical fruits as the main food source!

But why have we forgotten about tropical fruits? Because only in the tropics can we find the lush, rich fruits that sustain us, like all larger frugivores! People that never lived in the tropics often are not aware of the variety and quality of tropical fruits and how different they are in terms of nutrition, satiation, and health:

While most of us only know the typical Cavendish banana, and maybe the Apple banana, there are over 1000 types of bananas in the world! Most are surprised by the number and diversity of fruits that exist – a sad reality in the light of humans being tropical frugivores!

A high-fruit diet only starts to make sense when we have experienced the abundance and nutrition of high-quality, divers tropical fruits. Many of us live outside the tropics, complicating a successful high-fruit diet. A fruit diet is not just “eating fruits, and you will be ok” if you do not live where tropical fruits are readily available.

Also, read our article on the benefits of tropical fruits.


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Martina Spaeni Lima, MSc

"We are frugivores - specialized fruit-eaters!" It was passion at first sight when I came across the intriguing concept that humans are adapted to a high-fruit diet, similar to chimpanzees...

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