[permaculture] Wild and Ancient Fruit: Is it Really Small, Bitter, and Low in Sugar? | Raw Food SOS
lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Sun Mar 15 15:22:00 EDT 2015
Wild and Ancient Fruit: Is it Really Small, Bitter, and Low in Sugar?
Given the recent blog-o-drama about carbs in the human diet (for instance,
this seems like a fine time to blog about a sweet subject dear to my heart:
fruit! More specifically, I want to take a closer look at some common
beliefs about wild fruit, and how it differs from the store-bought stuff
most of us have access to.
For those looking at evolution for clues about the optimal human diet,
fruit is often regarded with suspicion. On one hand, few foods are
“intended” for consumption in the way fruit is: In a lovely act of
symbiosis, plants offer nourishment to the animal kingdom in trade for seed
dispersal. But on the other hand—the one purpled with blackberry stains—we
humans are famous for playing Food God, turning once-healthy things into
gross abominations. For hundreds (and in some cases, thousands) of years,
we’ve been selectively breeding certain fruits to become bigger, prettier,
easier to eat, and easier to transport thousands of miles away from their
mothering trees. As a result, the waxed apples and seedless watermelons
lining store aisles are a far cry from their wild ancestors.
And for the health minded, this is a predicament. How can we reconcile this
year-round supply of modern fruit with the wild stuff we encountered in the
Especially in the paleo/ancestral diet communities, statements like these
tend to be widely accepted in a common sense, no-reference-needed sort of
- “Fruits in the Paleolithic would have been tart and smaller, and you
may want to limit modern fruit because of this.” (From here
- “The problem is that the fruits our paleo ancestors ate no longer
exist. While they had mostly bitter fruit, we’ve bred ours over the past
200 years to be extremely sweet and sugary. It’s thus become something akin
to candy plus a mediocre multivitamin.” (From here
- “Bear in mind that the fruits that paleolithic man ate, while still
being, say, apples, bore almost no resemblance to today’s apples. Modern
fruit is bred to be HUGE and sweet. Most fruits are packed with a
particularly bad sugar, fructose…”(From here
- “Fruits have been selectively bread to contain massive amounts of
sugar compared to how they used to be. Eating a bunch of tropical fruit is
not in the spirit of Paleo.” (From here
At first glance, that all seems logical enough. Virtually all the food we
have available today—from plant and animal kingdoms alike—has been
selectively bred for both flavor and ease of eating, and fruit is certainly
no exception. It seems reasonable to conclude that, apart from the rare
batch of honey or seasonal berry bushes popping up outside, humans didn’t
get much exposure to sugar during our evolution, and modern fruits are
completely unlike anything we encountered in the past.
But are these assumptions truly accurate? Let’s take a look at the facts.
*(Note*: This isn’t a post about how much fruit we should or shouldn’t be
eating, or how much fruit we’ve eaten in the past, or how many apples it’ll
take to turn your liver into a ready-to-explode fructose grenade. Those are
some hot issues, and I’m not sure they can be reasonably addressed with
current research (for instance, there are virtually no studies on the
effects of fruit-derived fructose in healthy humans, and quantifying
historical fruit consumption is extremely difficult). My intent here is to
shed light on some of the myths surrounding wild and ancestral fruit, since
some of the most common beliefs are also the most inaccurate.)
*Wild fruit: small, bitter, and low in sugar?*
Contrary to popular belief, wild fruit—including the stuff we would’ve had
access to during our evolution—is not necessarily any of the above. In
fact, it can be bigger, tastier, and sweeter than anything you’ll ever find
in the aisles of your grocery store.
Fruit is decidedly sparser once you get out of the tropics, but considering
we were stationed in Africa until about 50,000 years ago, the flora of a
backyard in Michigan might not be a great reflection of the plant life we
encountered for the majority of our evolution. As a result, comparisons of
cold-climate fruits to their wild ancestors (for instance, a Red Delicious
versus a crab apple) tend to be misleading, and tropical fruits may offer
more insight. Although we’ll probably never get a clear picture of the
exact fruits available to early humans, we can look at the wild fruits
growing today to get an idea of what nature is capable of producing on its
There’s a great book called “Lost Crops of Africa” (readable online
<http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11879&page=185>) that has a
brilliant section on wild fruit. The authors start by describing the
vastness of Africa’s wild fruit supply:
Most of Africa’s edible native fruits are wild. One compilation lists *over
1000 different species from 85 botanical families* and even that assessment
is probably incomplete. Among all those fruit-bearing plants, many of the
individual specimens growing within Africa are sheltered and protected,
some are even carefully tended, *but few have been selected to bring out
their best qualities, let alone deliberately cultivated or maintained
through generations*. They remain untamed. … Africa’s wild-fruit wealth is
essentially unknown to science.
So what kinds of “wild fruits” are we talking about here? Let’s take a look
Monkey orange: a tasty fruit enjoyed by more than just primates. Photo by
Douglas Boldt of boldt.us.
Nope, that’s not a cross between brains and canned peaches: It’s a *monkey
orange*, a wild species native to Africa. Far from small, these fruits can
weigh up to 2.5 pounds each—but untouched by the sweet-seeking hands of
humans, is their flavor bitter and unpalatable? Quite the opposite
In organoleptic taste tests, people were requested to compare the monkey
orange fruit with familiar fruits; the most common answers were, orange,
banana, and apricot, and all possible combinations among them. The fruits
emit a delicate aroma reminiscent of the spice clove. … *Over 90% of the
panel claimed that it was very tasty.*
Nom nom nom. Moving on:
Junglesop: a giant, ugly ball of deliciousness. Photo from
Junglesop. Photo from Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits.
Next up, we have the truly wondrous *junglesop*—a wild member of the same
“sop” family that gives us cherimoyas, soursops, sweetsops, sugar apples,
and other uber-sweet delicacies common in the tropics. If any uncultivated
fruit can blast the “wild fruit is tiny” myth, it’s this sucker: Junglesops
average 15 inches in length and weigh around 12 pounds each, with some of
the larger fruits clocking in at 30 pounds or more. (Yes, these fruits are
even heavier than your obese cat.) And folks lucky enough to live in the
junglesop’s native regions seem quite fond of it
It is so well liked in the regions where it occurs, that for example, in
the Central African Republic, some people pay up more than one day’s salary
for a single large fruit. A fruit of this size is several meals worth of
food. In addition to being an important and widely liked fruit in
equatorial Africa, it is also a very important staple for wildlife,
Indeed, part of the reason the junglesop hasn’t been messed with by humans
is because it does so darn well growing on its own. These fruits pop up
like weeds in their homeland (West and Central Africa), and reach their
enormous size without any human intervention. Looks like we should give
nature more credit for making megafruits without our help.
Other wild fruits in this family are equally scrumptious
One, the African custard apple, has been called “the best indigenous fruit
in most parts of tropical Africa.” Another, the junglesop, produces
probably the biggest fruits in the whole family—as long as a person’s
forearm and as thick as a person’s thigh. A third—perhaps the strangest of
all—“hangs like a bunch of sausages,” each fruit a bright scarlet link. At
least two more produce small tasty fruits that make people’s mouths water
at just the remembrance from a long-ago childhood. And this group includes
a tangy fruit borne on a plant so strange that it barely rises above ground
African custard apple, mentioned above: scent of a pineapple, taste of an
You get the picture. And here are some more:
Soursop. Image from KaieteurNewsOnline.com.
Inside of a soursop. Photo from MedicoNews.com.
The *soursop* is an often-gigantic fruit of the Annona family that grows
wild, but is now being increasingly cultivated in the tropics due to its
awesome flavor. I’ve had the pleasure of trying these monsters in Hawaii,
and they taste vaguely like the sour-apple gummy snacks I devoured in my
youth. (I’ve also heard them described as a mixture of strawberry and
pineapple.) The inside is moist, creamy white, and full of seeds. One of
the few wild fruits with a documented nutrition profile, they’re decidedly
high in sugar (30 grams per 150-calorie serving).
Canistel, also known as egg fruit. Photo from MarketManila.com.
This fruit is as delicious as it is beautiful. The *canistel*—also called
an “egg fruit”—is rich and dense, tasting like a cross between pumpkin pie
and sweet potato. The name comes from its texture, which is a bit crumbly
and resembles cooked egg yolk. Although bigger, prettier strains are being
grown commercially these days (after being introduced to other parts of the
world in the mid 1920s), the canistel still grows wild in Mexico, Belize,
Guatemala, and El Salvador, where it retains its distinctive flavor. With
37 grams of sugar per 100-gram portion, this is another fruit that’s
naturally sweet without human help.
Masuku fruit. Photo by Douglas Boldt of boldt.us.
Those are *masukus*, another wild fruit renowned for their sweet, delicious
flavor. They might not be as visually pleasant as the store-bought fruit
we’re used to seeing, but they’re highly sought after throughout Africa due
to their taste.
Gingerbread plums. Image from “Lost Crops of Africa.”
*Gingerbread plums* are a wild African fruit with sweet, crunchy flesh
reminiscent of strawberries. They’re considered one of the yummiest wild
foods in Malawi. When they’re in season, many communities rely on
gingerbread plums as a dietary staple, according to “Lost Crops of Africa
Pedalai. Photo from SkyfieldTropical.com.
A distant relative of jackfruit (a giant that tastes like Juicyfruit gum),
*pedalai* is a softball-sized wild fruit from Southeast Asia with soft,
sweet white pegs of flesh inside.
Jaboticaba, or Brazilian grape tree. Photo from OddityCentral.com.
An open jaboticaba. Photo by Jacob Katel of the Miami New Times.
Contrary to what it may seem, this wacky looking tree isn’t sprouting
purple marbles: It’s a *jaboticaba*, AKA a Brazilian grape tree. This plant
produces sweet, big, grape-flavored fruits that grow directly on the
trunk—an evolutionary maneuver allowing non-climbing creatures to pick the
fruits and disperse the seeds.
And this is a *bacupari*—a wild-growing fruit native to South America, with
a very sweet, slightly acidic flavor.
Abiu. Photo from CloudForest.com.
*Abiu*, the Amazon-native wild fruit pictured above, is said to be pretty
tasty: Their “delicious flavour is reminiscent of crème caramel and it is
sometimes used to flavour ice cream and make other desserts,”
according to Daleys
Fruit Nursery <http://www.daleysfruit.com.au/fruit%20pages/abiu.htm>.
So there you have it: just a small sampling of the many wild fruits that
can be sweet, flavorful, and (sometimes) doggone big without us humans
breeding them for centuries. Interestingly, one reason wild fruits have a
reputation for being more sour than cultivated kinds isn’t because they
have less sugar, but because they have more vitamin C, which imparts an
acidic flavor. According to a paper about wild fruits in South Africa
that I’ll be discussing in the next section:
The composition of these [wild] fruits does not appear to differ much from
the better-known domestic fruits except in so far as their vitamin C
content is substantially higher than that of domestic fruits. The high
vitamin-C content of the wild fruits must undoubtedly contribute to their
*Nutrient profile of wild fruit*
A common belief about wild fruit is that it’s generally lower in sugar and
digestible carbohydrates than our modern varieties. Although most of the
world’s wild fruits are relatively unstudied (making it difficult to
analyze this claim), we do have information on some of ‘em. For instance, a
paper published decades ago in the South African Journal of Nutrition,
called “The nutrient composition of some edible wild fruits found in the
(PDF), documents the nutrient breakdowns of some of southern Africa’s most
popular wild fruits. Here’s a table from the paper:
Wondering why the protein, fat, and carbohydrate percentages look so funny
and don’t add up to 100? These measurements are based on dry weight rather
than caloric yield like we’re used to seeing—so those are just the relative
weights of each macronutrient, with moisture and ash (basically a
measurement of mineral content) making up the rest. You can still get a
sense of which macronutrient dominates in each type of fruit by looking at
that chart, but to make it easier, I went ahead and converted those numbers
into “percent of total calories” for all the fruits and graphed ‘em. This
is using only *non-fiber* carbohydrate so we don’t inflate these figures
with indigestible carbs (we’ll cover fiber a bit further down). The first
monkey orange values are for the flesh surrounding the seeds; the second
values are for the flesh on the inside of the shell.
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