Nature doesn’t get more abundant than the mighty Amazon jungle, a full on food forest where you are more likely to die from lunch falling on your head (or getting eaten by an caiman) than from starving to death. Here in the Amazonian metropolis of Iquitos, Peru, a wide variety of wild fruits and nuts fill the bustling markets to overflowing and are hawked as snacks on just about every street corner.
But beyond a small handful of items that got trendy and garnered worldwide attention, like acai—one of the highest antioxidant-packed fruits in the world, by the way—most of the Amazonian cornucopia remains relatively unknown, even among self-professed superfood aficionados who like to stay on top of the food chain nutrition-wise.
But check this out: the Amazon is also home to the most concentrated sources of Vitamins A and C (and possibly even E) on the planet—all delicious and extremely common fruits that also tend to find their way into heavenly ice creams, juices and smoothies here. There are also several little known Amazonian nuts with amazing protein, omega oil and antioxidant profiles that are prolific, inexpensive and tasty.
So, let us take you on a photo tour through Iquitos, Peru’s frenetically fantastic Belen market—where the entire bounty of the jungle is on daily display—and see six of the top Amazonian superfoods. The majority of these nutrient packed rainforest treasures are now starting to be sustainably produced and packaged for export and a wider audience by local Iquitos companies like Eco-Ola and Frutama, and should be available in select health food stores in the states soon if they are not already.
Ocean Malandra is a frequent Paste contributor that divides his time between the Redwood Forest of Northern California and the Amazon jungle of South America. He is the author of Paradise Now, forthcoming from Param Media.
1 of 6
Under the reddish-purple skin of this semi-aquatic riverbank fruit lies a bright pink flesh that is so tart it will instantly pucker your mouth if tried fresh. That sour punch is of course due to the fact that ounce for ounce Camu Camu packs something like 30 times the vitamin C of an orange.
In fact, according to a French-Brazilian joint study done in 2002, Camu Camu is actually the highest natural source of vitamin C in the world. Other studies have shown that Camu Camu also has potent anti-oxidant and even anti-inflammatory properties, so it's a great all-around natural supplement for today's modern lifestyle.
Here in Iquitos it is often used in refrescos, inexpensive fruit drinks served with lunch or on the roadside to quench that jungle thirst. Camu Camu powder, which can be mixed into smoothies or added to juice blends at home, is already pretty widely available on the Internet.
2 of 6
Known locally as the "jungle peanut," Sacha Inchi has been cultivated by various indigenous Amazon cultures since time immemorial and was heavily traded by the Inca Empire. A hearty nut that is very filling and full of flavor to boot, Sacha Inchi is packed with both omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids—the good kind of fats that have been linked to everything from heart health to weight loss.
Cold pressing Sacha Inchi produces a thick rich oil that can be used like olive oil and tastes a lot better than those funky fish oils everyone has been using back home. The oil is more commonly available than the nut in the states, but both are gaining popularity fast.
3 of 6
Creamy and savory like an avocado, the aguaje fruit (called buriti in Brazil) is a staple of the Amazon as its tree—a giant palm—produces like a champion year-round. You have to soak the hard snake scale covered fruit overnight to get it soft enough to scrape off but underneath is bright orange flesh that literally melts in your mouth like butter, especially with a pinch of salt.
That intense color is also an indicator of the epic amount of beta-carotene in the aguaje, as it is in fact the
richest natural source of this form of vitamin A ever discovered. As if that wasn't enough, the cold pressed oil of the aguaje is a rich luxurious and dark orange substance that makes a great natural suntan lotion and is undoubtedly wonderful for the skin as well.
4 of 6
It must be more than a coincidence that the macambo (theobroma bicolor) fruit produces a brain shaped nut that contains high levels of theobromine, an antioxidant that has been proven to boost mood and mental alertness levels. Theobromine, which is also found in high quantities in chocolate, a close relative of the macambo, actually has numerous health boosting qualities and is technically considered a psychoactive due to the fact that it binds to brain receptors and effects consciousness.
The macambo nut is also packed with protein, healthy oils and fiber, and is traditionally eaten with breakfast in the Amazon to help workers power through the day. It is light but filling, and relatively unknown outside of the rainforest still, so we look forward to learning about even more of its benefits.
5 of 6
A humble cousin to the Amazonian superstar known as acai, ungurahui is actually creamier, richer and more substantial than its famous kin. Ungurahui is usually sold in the market as processed pulp and it is rare to actually see the raw purple fruit outside of the forest itself.
This pulp makes an ice cream to die for, however, perfected by the local company Shambo in their ungurahui Popsicle.
While there are very limited studies done on ungurahui fruit and it's rarely seen outside of the Amazon at all, the cold pressed oil has been shown to contain an extremely high amount of Vitamin E—63 times more than avocados—and contain high levels of omega oils. With stats like that and a truly delightful taste, it's only a matter of time before you see ungurahui in your Ben and Jerry's back home.
6 of 6
Everyone already knows the nut of the marañon, it's the rich cashew nut that you just can't seem to get enough of, ever. But here in the Amazon rainforest, the creamy fruit of the cashew is also considered a delicacy - it is usually blended into a juice, strained and then downed like an all- natural milkshake. Academic studies done on the fruit show that it's rich in vitamin C, calcium, fiber, phosphorus and more, and it has even been used as a traditional remedy for sore throat and upset stomach. Its also been shown to accelerate the burning of body fat, especially when consumed before exercising. Since cashew is now being grown in Asia and other tropical parts of the world, only the low demand for this delicious fruit is keeping it from becoming as popular as its nut is in the west.