Over 230 years ago the naturalist and explorer Alexander Von Humbodlt described a remarkable palm tree of the Upper Amazon region as “the tree of life.” Humbodlt was the first European to have documented the moriche palm, a majestic 15-30m high tree with delicious edible fruit, known as aguaje in Peru, or buriti in Brazil. The highly nutritious aguaje fruit, rarely found outside the tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean, has been proclaimed by some, in recent years, as a superfood and the next acai.
Some companies, selling dietary supplements, even claim that pills or powders containing extract of aguaje fruit can increase a women’s breast size and procure a more voluptuous figure. This, manufactures claim, is due to phytoestrogens found in the tropical fruit, that mimic female sex hormones. So far there is little or no scientific evidence to support this theory, otherwise aguaje supplements would, no doubt, be a lot more popular.
The moriche plam, commonly found in swampy habitats and by riverbanks, was utilized by many indigenous civilizations such as the Pemon Indians of Venezuela, and the Yagua people of Peru, as a kind of one stop shop for most of their needs. The fruit of the moriche palm was either eaten raw, juiced or fermented to make wine. The stalks and leaves, which are some of the largest in the Amazon, were used in the constructions of rafts, for roof thatching, and to make sturdy fibers. From the fibers the tribes made hammocks, rope and baskets. The Yagua made skirts from the fibers, which they died red with annatto. Yagua women also used aguaje fruit seeds to make jewelry, such as necklaces and bracelets.
The moriche palm tree, botanical name Mauritia flexuosa, is a prolific producer of aguaje fruit from December to June. The fruit, which grows in large clusters, is small, barrel-shaped, and covered with red, purple or brownish scales. It is often described as a kind of miniature pineapple, only with a taste similar to carrot. Underneath the skin is a bright yellow-orange flesh, which contains one to three oval shaped, edible seeds.
Aguaje fruits are laid out and allowed to dry before being taken to market, where, in the Amazonian city of Iquitos, they are sold by ‘aguajeras’ ;women who sell aguaje fruit. In any given week nearly 200 varieties of fruits are sold in Iquitos, most of them obscure and unknown in western markets. Aguaje fruit provides nutrition and is a staple food of the local diet. It is also an important source of income for local people; particularly in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, one of Peru’s remotest sections of protected rain forest.
Aguaje Fruit and its Nutrition: Since the late 1990’s there have been numerous studies about the nutritional properties of Mauritia flexuosa or aguaje fruit. Studies revealed that this tropical fruit is the world’s best natural source of vitamin A, or beta carotene. Oil obtained from the edible nut has 152,000 ug RAE per 100g serving. That’s about 3 times more vitamin A than carrots. Aguaje fruit also contains more vitamin E, or tocopherols, than avocados and its vitamin C content is equivalent to oranges or lemons. Coincidentally, the fruit with the highest concentration of vitamin C is camu camu (Myrciaria dubia), which is also found in the Amazon Rainforest.
Aguaje is also a good source of vitamins B1,B2, B5, ascorbic acid and the minerals iron, potassium, phosphorus and calcium; also iodine. 100g of this tropical fruit has 283 kcal, 8.20g of protein, and 18.7g of carbohydrate.
Aguaje contains a number of phytochemicals which demonstrate antioxidant activity, including phenolic compounds, flavonoids and isoflavones. Some of these compounds are known as phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens found in plants are known to help prevent cardiovascular disease, and help protect against certain types of cancer; in particular, breast cancer, colon and prostate cancer.
It has also been claimed that phytoestrogens can reduce the symptoms of menopause. Though there is a lack of scientific evidence to back this up, herbs containing phytoestrogens, such as angelica and anise, have been used for the treatment of menopausal symptoms, in traditional folk medicine, for hundreds of years.
Traditionally, Amazonian indigenous people have claimed that consuming raw aguaje enhances female physical characteristics in both women and men. Some research suggests that phytoestrogens found in aguaje demonstrate estrogenic activity and may be a precursor to a female sex hormone.
Prompted by this theory, studies were conducted at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Peru. In the study, female lab rats were given extract of aguaje fruit oil and their level of estrodiol, a female sex hormone, monitored. Results showed that the hormone levels of estrodiol had been reduced, suggesting that the test had anti-estrogenic effects ,or blocked the effect of estrogen.
There are a number of topical creams and lotions on the market containing aguaje or buriti oil for use as natural sun protection or sun lotion. One such product is buriti baby body butter by the Body Shop. Research studies suggest that buriti oil does have photoprotective potential, due to the tropical fruits high concentration of carotenoids. Primary image credit.
Aguaje fruit for sale on the street in Iquitos, Peru. The fruit has been peeled to reveal its yellow-orange flesh. Image by Pierre Pouliquin; published at flickr.com.