By Eleanor Fausold
Sometimes the best things come in small packages. Camu camu (Myrciaria dubia) is a tiny fruit native to the Amazon region of South America that is rising in popularity, as both an element in local treats and a main component in dietary supplements. Although its high level of acidity once made it unpopular for consumption, the fruit is now valued for its exceptionally high vitamin C content and is, consequently, growing in demand in health-food stores around the world.
Also known as camocamo in Peru and cacari in Brazil, among other names, the camu camu tree can grow up to 40 feet high. The species thrives in swamps along rivers and lakes such as the Rio Mazán near Iquitos, Peru, and in Amazonian Brazil and Venezuela. The base of the camu camu’s trunk is frequently underwater, and the tree’s lower branches are often submerged for long periods during the rainy season.
Despite its frequent submersion, the camu camu tree produces fragrant flowers with tiny white petals and tiny fruits that turn from yellow to a maroon or purple-black color as they ripen. In the right growing conditions, a single tree can produce as many as 1,000 fruits per year, which are harvested by boat.
Known for its extremely high vitamin C content (half-ripe fruits have been found to contain 1,950 to 2,700 milligrams per 100 grams of edible fruit, an amount greater than that found in 50 oranges), the camu camu fruit has a very acidic taste. In fact, until fairly recently, the fruit was used almost exclusively as fish bait and the tree, when dead, was used as a source of firewood.
Today, camu camu is growing in popularity. The fruit has become a common ingredient in drinks, popsicles, and candy, and the plant’s cortex (the outer layer of tissue) is also sometimes steeped in aguardiente, a strong alcoholic drink, producing a mixture that is believed to prevent rheumatism.
In addition, camu camu’s high concentration of vitamin C has made it appealing to the growing health-food market in countries around the world, including the United States and Japan. For use in supplements, the fruit is peeled and made into a juice, which is then dehydrated, resulting in a powder that can be used in health products. Because of the increasing demand for its export, large-scale planting of camu camu has begun throughout the Amazon, where the tree is frequently interplanted with cowpea, squash, cassava, and other annual crops.
Producing camu camu for widespread sale has its complications, however. Because the plant is not domesticated, camu camu’s level of Vitamin C can vary from tree to tree. The fruit must also be processed and used quickly and carefully—in even just one month of storage, the fruit can lose up to a quarter of its Vitamin C content, and the powdered form cannot be heated or stored for more than one year.
But camu camu still has vast potential to become a more mainstream component in both sugary treats and the global health foods market. As demand grows and exports increase, this tiny South American fruit is likely to become even more well-known for its vitamin C strength.
Do you know of other nutritious fruits rising in popularity? Tell us about them below!
Eleanor Fausold is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.
To read about other crops native to the Amazon, see: Moringa: The Giving Tree, Tsamma Melons: Watermelon’s Wild Cousins, African rock fig: A fruit with historical significance and potential for the future, False Yam: A Famine Prevention Trifecta, and Manara Vanilla: Cultivating Delicate Flavor.
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