Dr. Colin Michie has worked as a paediatrician in the United Kingdom, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. He has specialised in nutrition, haematology and infectious diseases. Now the Associate Academic Dean for the American University of the Caribbean Medical School in St. Maarten, his enthusiasm is in teaching and training.

Eat more mangoes; it might improve your sprinting or help with your next snake bite!

As children, we had to stand outside to eat our mangoes. Those golden-ripe fruit were succulent, juicy and gloriously messy. But perhaps you prefer unripe green mango dipped in chilli powder for breakfast – a flavoursome kick start to the day. This rich fruit always causes conversation in St. Martin’s markets. We all have a favourite type of mango; everyone has their mango stories. Do you eat the skin? How do you manage the seed? Which is your preferred tree?

There is great news for mango-lovers. Over this last year, research has confirmed that mangoes are a medicinal treasure chest. With its amazing aroma and textures, flavours and colours, this magnificent fruit has dazzled pharmacists too. Mundus mango is growing larger. The fruits themselves vary in size, though: a mango ranges from a small “4” of some 200 g through the “1” of 300g, or an A2 of 350g.

Mangoes contain nutrients, mostly as carbohydrates, several grams of fibre and they are fruit-full of fascinating phytochemicals. There is very little fat in a mango, but they do contain some essential fatty acids. Fresh mango is a useful source of minerals such as iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium and copper; they contain little sodium. Mango is an excellent source of vitamins such as A and carotenoids (about 25 of them). Vitamin C levels vary depending on the cultivar (40-80% of daily requirements). Folic acid and other vitamin Bs, vitamins E and K are present too. However, it is the polyphenols found in mango, its leaves and bark that seem to give it a special magic. Compounds such as quercetinkaempferolcatechins, a xanthonoid named mangiferin and a triterpenelupeol are all being actively evaluated as valuable neutraceuticals: nutrients that have pharmaceutical effects.

Mangifarin’s effects are particularly impressive. This molecule has been found to reduce insulin resistance, to reduce inflammation and kill viruses. This might explain the value of mangoes in helping those with mouth ulcers (a remedy for this in Africa and Cuba) as well as diarrhoea across the world. Mangifarin reduces the toxicity of snake venom and it has been employed to help skin flaps heal after plastic surgery. In these studies, a new technology was employed – mangifarin from mangoes was encased in a microscopic ball of lipids, a nanosphere, smaller than a red cell, in order to protect it and prolong its action.

For the athletes reading this, mangifarin has been found to improve peak and mean power sprint muscle output in young subjects. Adding quercetin, also found in mangoes, improved this effect. In the female athletes in the study, an improvement was seen in brain oxygenation during prolonged sprinting. We need to find out more about how much mangifarin is useful, how this relates to a single mango and perhaps what type of mango, but the race is on!

How sweet is a mango? This is not the start of a poem, but an important question. Some say that mangoes are too sweet, as they raise your blood sugar. On St. Martin where diabetes is a common problem, it is useful to look at the safety of sugary fruit. A careful study carried out in Nigeria examined how blood sugar changes in healthy humans after eating a number of fruit. Mangoes do put up your blood sugar, but not particularly high and not for very long. This is probably because of the fibre mangoes contain, as well as their polyphenols. Mangoes contain both soluble fibre (which draws water into the bowel and is prebiotic too – gut bacteria will utilise it as food) as well as insoluble indigestible fibre. Both of these slow the absorption of sugars. They ensure the bowel bacteria remain happy! However, we do not know which mangoes are best for blood sugar so it would be best to eat mango in moderation.

Sweetness can be measured. In the Brix scales of sweetness, one Brix degree is a gram of sugar in 100 grams of solution. Mangoes are between 6 and 14 Brix degrees, much as the same as avocado, while pineapples are sweeter with between 14 and 22 Brix degrees. The energy value of a 100 gram serving of a Julie mango is 250 kJ (or 60 kcal).

Mangoes occupy a unique place in the royalty of fruit, as symbols, and as a traditional medicine. The Mangifera indica tree originated on the Malay peninsula and has been grown in much of Asia for several centuries; India is a major producer. “Mango” comes from a Dravidian word, “svay” is their name in Cambodia. Mango is the national fruit of India, Pakistan and the Philippines and the national tree of Bangladesh. It symbolises life and happiness in Indian religions. The perfectly ripe mango was held by Lord Ganesha as a symbol of attainment. In Sanskrit, the mango tree is one of the kalpavriksha – a wish-granting tree. It is said that Buddha himself meditated in groves of shady mango trees in Amrapali. The Great Chronicle of Ceylon described how the island now named Sri Lanka converted to Buddhism following discussions about mango trees between the island’s King Tissa and Price Mahinda.

And then there is the Paisley pattern. There have probably been several origins of this curved tear-drop design, known in the Punjab as “ambi” (mango), or “carrey” (mango seed) in Pakistan. Similar mango-shaped patterns have been found on Celtic shields from the British isles. The pattern became popular in the middle ages in Iran, from where traders carried it to Europe. The name is linked to the Scottish town of Paisley, where the use of mechanised looms with cards for automation allowed industrial scale weaving of patterned shawls with multiple colours to resemble those from the Middle East. Paisley designs have been intermittently popular: the pop-star Prince sang of “Paisley Park” and created the “Paisley-Park” record label.

Mangoes were brought to the Caribbean in the 17th century. Breeding mango trees in South Florida has been particularly productive. For example, the Hayden tree was planted there in 1902 – the majority of grocery mangoes in the United States can be traced back to this specimen, which itself originated from Tamil Nadu in India. Hayden was crossed with another Indian cultivar, the Brooks tree, to produce the Kent mango in 1932 – this tree is still standing too. Mango trees can live for 300 years. Globally, over 1000 cultivars of mangoes are grown; their names span alphabets of several languages. Alice, Alphonso, Bombay, Carrie, Chaunsa, Duncan, and Fazli, Julie, Heidi, Kent, Madame Francis, Nam Doc Mai, and Tommy Atkins; Valencia Pride – names that scan like a great deck of tasty jewels.

Not everyone likes mangoes, or their trees. The bark, leaves and fruit can irritate the skin. Mangifera belong to the botanical family that includes poison ivy, poison oak and the Japanese laquer tree. All contain urushiol that can cause dermatitis. Pistachios, cashews, mombin and the African marula also belong to this group but are less likely to irritate.

So if you wish to treat anaemia, make a salad, enjoy a lassi, dessert, yin tonic, chutney, pickle, jam or just drip indulgent juices, there are many reasons to eat a little more mango, regularly. And you might just be able to sprint faster too.