FACTBOX: The baobab: multi-purpose icon of the African bush

Tue Sep 30, 2008 8:21am EDT
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(Reuters) - European food companies may soon be using the pulp of the fruit of the baobab tree as a flavoring for smoothies, cereal bars or drinks after it won European Commission approval in July as a novel food. This opened the way for its use in Europe as a food ingredient.

Here are some facts about the baobab tree:

-- An icon of the African bush, its swollen trunk and gnarled branches are a familiar sight in the savannas of southern, east and west Africa. The circumference of a mature tree's trunk can reach 20 meters. The tree normally lives for about 500 years, but some are believed to be as old as 5,000 years.

-- There are eight species: the most common, Adansonia digitata, named after 18th-century French explorer and botanist Michel Adanson, is found across the African continent. Six species are found on the island of Madagascar and one in Australia.

-- The common English name baobab is believed to come from the Arabic "bu hibab" meaning "fruit with several seeds."

But as a result of its shape, multiple properties and uses, the tree has also come to be known by a host of different names: Upside-Down Tree, Bottle-tree, Tree of life, Pharmacy tree, Monkey bread tree, Cream of Tartar tree, Ethiopian sour gourd, Senegal calabash.

-- African people have used the tree for centuries as a source of food, medicine, shelter and even to make clothes. The ripe fruit pulp, which is naturally dehydrated and ivory colored, is commonly sucked, chewed or made into a drink when mixed with water or milk. Sauces for cereal dishes are prepared from the fresh or dried leaves. Edible oil can be extracted from the seeds, which can also be roasted and eaten. The bark provides a strong fiber for rope and cloth. Baskets, bags and mats are also made from it.

-- The fruit, bark and leaves are widely used in traditional medicines for a range of ailments, including diarrhea, fever and dysentery. The fruit pulp is an extremely important source of vitamin C, containing up to 10 or more times that of oranges, and has a high antioxidant capability. The fruits were used by Arabic sailors to prevent scurvy.

-- An Italian company, Baobab Fruit Company Senegal, produces baobab fruit products for use as dietary supplements and in cosmetics.

PhytoTrade Africa, a trade organization that campaigns for the sustainable use of African natural products, first applied for European Commission novel foods approval for baobab fruit pulp in 2006. It has a commercial partner, Afriplex, that supplies baobab fruit pulp and extracts.

With the approval given in July, marketing experts see big potential for the fruit pulp.