By Carly Chaapel
Researchers have stumbled upon yet another reason to save the Amazon rainforest. The aguaje fruit is just another nutrient-rich, pulpy gem with the potential to gain as much popularity as the now familiar acai berry or guarana extract. Local people living within the Peruvian Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve have cultivated this fruit, and a variety of others, as part of their culture. At the local market in the city of Iquitos, this small, scaly fruit generates US$4.6 million every year. But as global trends continue to rise in favor of unique, healthful food choices, the aguaje holds the capability to generate income for local growers and amp up Vitamin A intake for consumers around the world.
Aguaje is peeled and juiced for sale at the market. (Photo credit: Juan Forero, The Washington Post)
The aguaje fruit ripens on a palm tree, and when it is ready to eat, one must peel back the maroon scales before munching on the crisp yellow flesh inside. Tasters have compared the aguaje fruit to a carrot, although it boasts three times the amount of Vitamin A than this familiar orange root vegetable. Aguaje oil is also high in beta-carotene, oleic acid (also found in olive oil), and essential fatty acids that the human body cannot synthesize on its own. Amazingly, the oil also contains a naturally-occurring SPF that can filter ultraviolet rays and treat burns when applied topically.
University of Florida geographer and Professor Nigel Smith has devoted much of his career to research in the Amazon. In addition to its health benefits and pleasing taste, he believes that cultivation of the aguaje fruit by small farmers may play a part in the survival of a healthy rainforest ecosystem. Commercial farmers in the Amazon are often demonized for their large clear-cuts of monocropped staples such as coffee, soy, and rubber. However, small-scale farmers can actually play a positive role in maintaining a biologically diverse landscape that benefits both the natural ecosystem and the people living within it.
By encouraging a variety of edible plants to grow within the forest, these small-scale farmers are engaging in a form of agroforestry that uses the complex forest ecosystem as a model for highly productive food gardens. As one more element of a forest garden that flourishes in vertical layers of plant diversity, the aquaje provides another form of sustenance, should other crops fail due to pest damage, a disease outbreak, or severe weather.
Will the aguaje fruit become the next trend in exotic health food? It is already popular among local consumers, and value can be easily added by processing the fruit into juice, jam, or ice cream. If harvested sustainably, this humble tropical plant could boost the health of both the Amazon rainforest and a planet of 7 billion.