The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity



Garden to Table

September 27, 2009

For generations, people from all over Africa have cherished the mysterious baobab tree – or Adansonia digitata. Known for producing an extremely nutritious fruit, parts of the baobab are used as a foodstuff to make rope, feed animals, provide shelter and make medicine in the African nations that depend on this important tree with its characteristic “up-side down” silhouette.

Now, renewed interest in developing baobab as a nutrient-rich raw material for domestic consumer products may soon bring the alluring fruit to a store shelf near you. Approved for European markets last year, the FDA gave the fruit’s dry pulp GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status in a non-objection letter released last month. That means that food manufacturers can now import it to the U.S. for use in shakes, energy bars and other processed foods. 

PhytoTrade Africa, the non-profit organization that made the application for FDA approval, represents rural producers from across southern Africa and says that the move to allow baobab into the U.S. and Europe has the potential to create a billion dollar international industry. 

But some say all this excitement could come with a price. Chido Makunike, a blogger at the Cheetah Index, wonders if those involved in the export business will take the necessary “steps to ensure that the new interest in baobab will not cause over-exploitation or misuse.” 

PhytoTrade Africa spokesperson Lucy Welford weighs in. “Research into the sustainability of baobab commercialization has shown that there’s more than enough baobab to go around,” she says. “In addition, PhytoTrade’s baobab is organic and fair trade certified. Rural farmers who harvest the fruit can improve their standard of living through the sustainable trade in baobab.” 

Growing prolifically throughout southern Africa, but currently commercially harvested primarily in Malawi, baobab fruits have a tart flavor that has been described as a cross between vanilla, grapefruit and pear. Adult baobab trees in their natural habitat are enormous – some baobab trees can grow up to 30 feet in diameter and beyond. In Johannesburg, a massive, hollowed-out baobab tree even serves as a bar for locals.

The fruit of the baobab is white and powdery, and was the original cream of tartar that was used in baking. High in antioxidants, with six times as much vitamin C as oranges and twice as much calcium as milk, the baobab fruit is a useful natural source of vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein and has been dubbed the latest “superfruit”. 

“The baobab tree has become symbolic of the African continent,” adds Welford. “Up to now, its fruit has been Africa’s best kept secret. And because of its interesting nutritional profile and long history of culinary use, baobab is now ready to be shared with consumers world-wide.”