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From summer into fall, fruit and veggie obsessives often find themselves fixating on figs. Your Instagram, filled with beautiful bowls of tastefully arrayed bulbs is likely evidence of that. But here’s the thing: Not everyone thinks figs are something vegans and vegetarians should be eating. There are a lot of questions out there about if there are wasps in figs – and there’s some confusion about what figs technically even are in the first place (hint: not a fruit). So we’re getting figgy with it and answering some of your big fig questions.
Are Figs Fruit?
Much like a tomato is technically not a vegetable, figs are technically not a fruit. Instead, they’re what’s known as an inflorescence. The Ecological Society of America describes it as “a cluster of many flowers and seeds contained inside a bulbous stem.” That unusual structure – sometimes described as an inverted flower – is what necessitates an unusual process of pollination. We’ll get to that next.
Are There Wasps in Figs?
Most wild-grown and some commercially-grown figs are pollinated by wasps. And if you’re uncomfortable with thinking too much about wasps, you might want to stop there and probably skip the figs.
For those willing to go on, this pollination process is central to the question of are figs vegan or not. When you think of pollination, you might imagine a bumble bee scooting around in between various different flowers, sprinkling yellow pollen as it goes along. But with figs, it doesn’t quite work like that.
A queen wasp will enter a narrow opening in the fig plant, the ostiole, when she’s ready to lay eggs. If it’s a male flower (flowers have biological sexes), she can lay the eggs. She’ll die inside the flower, but the larvae will be able to exit and go on to live productive wasp lives. If she’s landed in a female flower she will pollenate it so that it can mature into the fruit-like bulb we consume.
The claim that any crunchy bits you feel when biting into a fig are wasp body parts is generally false. Those are most likely seeds you’re eating. By the time the fig develops, everything wasp-related has been broken down by ficin, an enzyme in the plant.
Are Figs Vegan?
This reproductive relationship between figs and wasps is naturally occurring and happens in nature. But it does mean a wasp dies so that a fig can grow.
“Whilst it is true that the majority of figs have had a wasp die inside them, it is in no meaningful way true to say that a vegan eating such a fig is really eating the wasp,” writes Vegan Friendly. “This whole process occurs naturally with no human involvement or cruelty to animals. The survival of both sets of species, of fig wasps and fig trees, is dependent on this astonishing feat of nature. Therefore, in our opinion, and that of just about every vegan you might ask, figs are indeed vegan friendly.”
Ultimately, what any given individual feels is appropriate or not in their diet is up to them, but by most standards figs are as appropriate for a vegan to eat as a fruit would be.
If the idea of a wasp potentially having died inside something you’re going to eat bothers you due to veganism or just generally feeling weird about the whole thing, that doesn’t mean all figs have to be off the menu. Many commercially-grown figs in the U.S. do not rely on wasp-based pollination,