for National Geographic Magazine
Once obscure Amazon fruits like açaí are riding health claims to supermarket success. Could a scaly palm fruit with three times the vitamin A of carrots be the rain forest's next popular export?
In the rain forests of Peru's remote Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, mothers don't make kids eat their carrots. Instead, kids munch on aguaje, a crisp, neon yellow palm fruit covered in maroon scales. It tastes a bit like a carrot, but packs three times the vitamin A punch.
Aguaje is just one of more than a hundred wild and domesticated fruits available to people each year in this 8,000-square-mile chunk of protected Amazon wetland at the confluence of two rivers in northeastern Peru.
And with so much variety and abundance, it's not surprising that these fruits form the centerpiece of the local diet. The reserve's 100,000 residents depend on them for many nutrients—like vitamins, protein, and oils—that the rest of us normally get from a variety of other foods, including vegetables and nuts.
Fruits also serve as an important source of income for the residents—especially aguaje. It generates $4.6 million every year in the markets of Iquitos, the nearest city—more than any other indigenous fruit from the Peruvian Amazon.
While U.S. farmers markets might sell a dozen or two different kinds of fruit in any given week, the Iquitos market boasts nearly 200, with varied tastes, colors, shapes, and textures: spiky yellow rinds, crunchy seeds, and orange pulp.
But outside the Amazon region, their popularity is limited. Although the Amazon has occasionally yielded commercially valuable fruits, such as the antioxidant-rich açaí added to gourmet juices and the caffeine-charged guarana used in energy drinks, international markets have yet to plumb most of the bounty of indigenous fruits growing in lush forests along rivers.
Beyond Peru and parts of Brazil, the aguaje's supercarrot possibilities remain largely unknown.
Could that change? One expert thinks it's possible. Outside the Amazon, few know more about this region's wild and cultivated fruits than Nigel Smith. The Venezuelan-born geographer, a professor at the University of Florida, has devoted much of his four-decade career to the Amazon region.
In recent years he's examined just about every aspect of the obscure fruits that blanket Peru's rich floodplain forests: how, where, and why they're grown; who consumes them; their nutritional and cultural value; and, of course, how they taste. (The sweet, "sublime" pulp of wild macambillo, a dull orange fruit, is his favorite.)
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