Camu-Camu Berries: History, Gastronomical Uses and Nutrition

Camu camu (Myrciaria dubia) is the edible fruit of a tropical lowland tree that is native to central and western regions of the Amazon Basin. This tropical fruit of the Myrtle family, related to feijoa, jaboticaba and clove, makes a tasty, slightly sour, juice that is packed with vitamin C. In fact, camu camu contains more vitamin C than any other plant; up to 30 times more than any citrus fruit.
Food & Drink

Camu-camu fruits are small, about the size of a cherry or large grape. They are green when unripe, turning a reddish purple and eventually red when mature. The camu-camu tree, which could be described as a large bush, grows from about 6-25ft in height and is found on flood plain or swamps, particularly by oxbow lakes. Originally wild camu-camu trees were most plentiful near the drainage areas of the Xingu River (an Amazon tributary in Northern Brazil) and the Napo River in Ecuador. The Peruvian Amazon now has the largest variety of species due to propagation. This fruit is know as cacari or camu camu in Brazil and Peru, guayabo in Colombia and guayabato in Venezuela.

Camu-camu berries have been utilized and valued by Amazonian Indians for hundreds of years. Aside from an easily transportable nutritious food source, the berries, which are rich in phytochemicals, were used to treat infections, as a pain reliever, and to promote long life. Traditionally, a poultice was made of the camu camu tree bark and placed on wounds to prevent infection. Tree bark was also used in a decoction to treat rheumatism.

The importance of camu-camu as a source of natural vitamin C for South American urban populations and for export wasn’t recognized until the early 1990's, at which time the fruit became a viable commercial agroforestry crop. One of the first nurseries was opened near km 100 of the Manaus-Itacoatiara highway in Brazil. Later a 500 hectare plantation was established near Sao Paulo, which used drip irrigation. In 1996 the Peruvian Government launched an environmentally friendly project when, as part of reforestation programs, it began planting seedlings. The intention was that a successful export market would help raise incomes of local people and decrease poverty. Harvesting camu-camu, which takes place between November and March, in the wild is a slow and difficult process because the terrain is flooded and often a good percent of the fruit trees are underwater. Farmers use canoes to access and harvest the fruit trees in the swamps.

In recent years it was thought that camu camu would have a big impact on export markets particularly to Europe, the USA and Japan. However the idea has been slow to come to fruition, partly because many rural farmers could not obtain loans to expand into the lucrative camu-camu crop market. Another factor is that the locations where camu-camu is harvested are remote, and far from the necessary facilities needed to process the fruit.

Since it began, the cultivation of camu-camu has raised a number of environmental concerns, the most pressing of which is the deforestation of the Amazon flood plains. Also the displacement of plant species in areas where camu-camu did not previously exist and the spread of disease and pests. As a non-timber forest crop camu-camu is seen as a positive alternative and up until now, at least, the harvesting of wild camu-camu dose not seem to have had a detrimental effect on the environment. This tropical fruit is also a vital source of food for fish in flooded areas of the forest.

Gastronomical Uses: fresh camu camu has a tart, or somewhat sour flavor when mature caused by the high concentration of ascorbic acid. Camu camu is sold fresh in the markets of Iquitos, Manaus, and other Amazonian cities and towns. The fruit is usually eaten raw, squeezed to make juice, as are many other tropical fruits, and also made into a very popular ice cream. In Japan camu camu is used as a flavoring for popular chewy candies such as camu camu sakura saku, and the American cherry and camu camu candy bar.

Nutritional Value: in recent years camu camu has been labeled as a 'superfood,' with claims that the tiny red berries can, amongst other things, relieve infertility in men, promote fertility in women, cure herpes and help relieve Parkinson’s and Crohn's disease. While there is some evidence to support medicinal benefits, there is still not enough clinical data to affirm that camu camu berries can be used to treat or prevent any medical condition. That said, camu camu is exceptionally high in ascorbic acid or vitamin C; the amount varies from 845-2994mg/per 100g, which is staggeringly high when compared to oranges at 54mg/per 100 serving. Such high levels of natural vitamin C boosts the immune system, thereby helping to fight off viral infections. Some might think the same result could be achieved with large doses of synthetic vitamin C, which cost considerably less than concentrated camu camu powder. Yet, studies suggest that it is the combination of hundreds of natural compounds found in camu camu, including bioflavonoids, that have such a potent beneficial effect on the body; although we still don't yet fully understand the effects of many of these componds.

The biological actions of camu camu include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, astringent, anti-depressant and anti-viral. Camu camu is a source of the phytochemicals beta-carotene, calcium, iron, phosphorus, riboflavin, thiamin, valine, d-limonone, alpha-pinene, leucine and serine. Camu camu has a higher concentration of phytochemicals than any other fruit including blueberries, grapes or strawberries.The bioflavonoids in camu camu, which include anthocyanins, (also found in blueberries) can help lower cholesterol, high blood pressure and neutralize harmful free radicals, which contribute to chronic diseases.

Primary image: Japanese camu camu sweets. Image credit.

Camu camu berries at Belen Market, Iquitos, Peru. Image credit.

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