Science - January 29, 2009

HOPE FOR AFRICA IN BAOBAB

The baobab tree produces fruit that is rich in vitamin C, antioxidants and minerals. ‘The pulp of the fruit has the most vitamin C of all the natural foods in the world’, says Flora Chadare in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.

Hadzabe women gathering baobab fruit in Tanzania.
‘The baobab is a very rich tree. Its edible products are the fruit pulp, the seed and kernels, and the leaves.’ Chadare did a literature study of the macro- and micro-nutrients, amino acids and fatty acids in the pulp, leaves, seeds and kernels of the baobab tree.

‘The pulp has a high antioxidant level as well as a lot of vitamin C, and the link between these is also strong. The leaves have a high mineral content, mainly calcium and iron. They also contain antioxidants. Baobab seeds and kernels are oily and fatty.’ Chadare found very varied results in the literature, probably because several different measuring methods were used, and because the origin of the samples was variable. No conclusions can be drawn yet about biological variation, either. Chadare’s follow-up research looks into how available and digestible the minerals in the leaves are.

Chadare was recently awarded a grant by the Storm-van der Chijs fund for promoting the careers of women scientists at Wageningen UR. But her interest goes beyond the nutritional value of baobab products. She has already published articles about the various baobab food products processed by the people of Benin. ‘For example, they use fermented foods that are unknown in the literature. People in Benin also use the fresh leaves, which are only available during the rainy season, to make a sauce. The leaves are slimy, just like okra. In dried powder form, the leaves are eaten in the dry season as well. The baobab fruit is eaten too, and the surplus is often sold at the market.’

There are some problems to be addressed, as Chadare explains: ‘The kernels are good for selling and eating, but it is difficult to get them out of the seeds, so the latter are often simply thrown away. If we can improve this process and the packaging, the kernels can be a very good product for export.’

In an important development for the export potential of dried baobab fruit, the EU has recently categorized it as a novel food, opening up a whole new export market. ‘And the baobab is prominent throughout Africa, so this product can be very valuable for poor African farmers.’

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