Ancient Tree Earns New Reputation as Modern Superfood

For centuries, indigenous African peoples have recognized the vast medicinal and cultural value of the ancient Baobab tree. Widely utilized in Africa as both a traditional food crop and a source of medicine, shelter, and clothing, little was known of the prehistoric plant outside its native continent -- until recently.

 

baobab treeWithin the last few years, an increasing awareness of the Baobab tree’s healing benefits has spread among health-conscious consumers and natural food manufacturers across the globe. Its growing notoriety as a nutritional powerhouse has bolstered its status as one of the health food industry’s latest superfood stars.

With origins in the arid savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, the Baobab (Adansonia) has since spread throughout parts of Asia, India, and Australia. A monumental deciduous tree with a shallow root system, Baobabs typically grow as solitary individuals. They can reach a staggering 100 feet in height, and a single Baobab can live for hundreds of years, with some still-living trees estimated to be over 1,000 years old.

 

BaobabFruitOften called the “upside-down tree,” Baobabs store water in their trunks during the rainy season and can swell up to a diameter of around 30 feet. This method of water collection and storage allows the tree to produce large, nutrient-rich fruits in drier months. Baobab fruit grows in an ovoid pod about 6-8 inches long -- sometimes referred to as “monkey’s bread” -- and contains black seeds embedded in a chalky white pulp.

Also described as the “tree of life,” virtually every part of the Baobab is used by people in Africa. Its seeds, leaves, roots, flowers, fruit pulp, and bark are all edible and are prepared for use as food as well as medicine. Rope and cloth can be made from its bark, and Baobabs are sought out as a source of water and also protective sanctuary by both humans and animals alike.

Baobab’s Nutritional Benefits

Numerous health benefits have been attributed to Baobab consumption, including immune system support, blood sugar regulation, increased overall metabolism, improved skin health, and reversal of the visible effects of aging.

A growing body of scientific research illuminates Baobab’s significant nutritional properties and validates at leas some of the traditional claims. Often described as a natural multivitamin, Baobab fruit is high in vitamin C, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. One study reports that its pulp contains 50% more calcium than spinach and three times the vitamin C of an orange (Thiyagarajan, et al. Res J Pharm Phyto. 2015; 7(1): 57-60).

 

Researchers have argued that owing to its nutrient content, particularly its high levels of vitamin C and total sugar, Baobab fruit has “potential to improve nutrition for millions of people” (Parkouda, et al. Agrofor Sys. 2012; 85(3): 455-463).

The seeds of the Baobab fruit are notably nutritious as well. They’re high in lysine, thiamine, calcium, and iron and contain significant levels of phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, sodium, and manganese (Rahul, et al. As Pac J Trop Biomed. 2015; 5(1): 79-84).

Another study reports that the oil found in Baobab seeds contains about 1-2 mg/g of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid required by the body for growth and development. Its authors suggest that the seeds’ high mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acid content may help lower cholesterol levels, making Baobab seed oil “a good option for preparing healthier foods” (Donkor et al. Food Nut Sci. 2014; 5(4): 328-333).

Baobab has also been noted for its antioxidant activity. A study on the fruit pulp of six different African Baobab species concluded that its antioxidant capacity is "higher than many widely consumed fruits and vegetables” (Ibrahima, et al. Afr J Ag Res. 2013; 8(47): 6046-6054).

A rich source of fiber, Baobab fruit may help to control serum cholesterol levels, reduce other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and suppress appetite and caloric intake (Magaia et al. SpringerPlus. 2013; 2(1): 88).

Additional research indicates that various parts of the Baobab possess a range of antimicrobial, antiviral, antiparasitic, antidiarrheal, anti-inflammatory properties. A study on the antiviral capacity of Baobab leaf, pulp, and seed extracts found that the influenza virus is highly susceptible to all three, with the leaf extract displaying the most potent anti-influenza activity (Selvarani & Hudson. J Med Plant Res. 2009; 3:(8): 576-582).

Another study found that powdered Baobab stem bark demonstrated antibacterial activity against clinical isolates of Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Proteus mirabilis and Staphylococcus specie (Yusha’u, et al. Int J Biomed & Health Sci. 2010; 6(3): 129-135).

Widely used as an antimalarial remedy, a mash containing dried Baobab bark is prepared throughout Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies to treat malarial fever (Kaboré, et al. Af J Food Sci. 2011; 5(16): 833-844). Researchers have also demonstrated the significant anti-sickling activity of Baobab bark, which, investigators argue, “[justifies] use of this plant by traditional healers in Congolese traditional medicine in the management of sickle cell disease” (Mpiana, et al. Int Blood Res & Rev. 2014; 2(5): 198-212).

Baobab as Superfood

Noting the Baobab’s many remarkable health benefits, several natural food companies have introduced new specialty product lines featuring the ancient plant. Today, the most commonly marketed form of Baobab is a powder made from the dried pulp of its fruit.

Like the tree itself, Baobab powder has a variety of uses. Naturally sweet, it makes a healthy alternative to refined sugars. It can be sprinkled on yogurt, mixed into drinks, added to salad dressings, blended into smoothies, and used in baking as a raising agent.

Aduna, a natural food company striving to “create demand for under-utilised natural products from small-scale producers in Africa,” has spearheaded efforts to promote Baobab’s reputation as a superfood. On its website, the company boasts that in “the last two years, we have taken Baobab from almost complete obscurity to being one of the best-selling superfoods in the UK.” Aduna’s primary products are energy bars and a powdered Baobab mix.

Another young health and wellness company and Baobab fruit powder retailer called Kaibae works in partnership with Ghanaian community members to sustainably harvest wild Baobab fruit. Founder Luc Maes, ND, DC, and director of the Maes Center for Natural Health Care in Santa Barbara, CA, explains that Kaibae provides local employment and educational opportunities in Bawku, the district in Northern Ghana from which its fruit is sourced.

 

"We intentionally sought out a community that needs economic development," Maes explains. "We found an ingredient that's full of health benefits that grows naturally and abundantly, and that people there can harvest sustainably. In that way we're making a difference. The idea is to create a means through which people can better their lives without damaging the area."

Atacora, an Olympia, Washington-based, fair-trade company is also marketing Baobab products harvested and processed by a women’s economic development collective in Benin, West Africa. Atacora is also introducing the US market to Fonio--a healthy, low-glycemic, naturally gluten-free grain that is a staple across West Africa.

Companies like Aduna and Kaibae are helping to spread knowledge of the extraordinary Baobab far beyond its African roots. As research continues to shed light on its many healing benefits, Baobab products will likely appear on a growing number of natural grocery store shelves.