Rainforest Superfoods: Camu Camu
If you were to hold a camu camu berry in your hand, it would look like a large reddish grape. But don’t be fooled by this berry’s small size and familiar appearance; it holds an abundance of antioxidants, phytochemicals, and unrivaled vitamin C content. It also boasts medicinal properties, serving as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and emollient.
Like most superfoods, camu camu grows in the fertile South American rainforest region, mostly residing in lowland areas throughout Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru, where it thrives in areas prone to flooding, especially along riverbanks. On average, the Myrciaria dubia bush, both wild and cultivated, yields approximately 24 pounds of edible fruit once per year.
Environment and Harvest
During harvest, which is usually after the rainy season when the berries exhibit a deep red color denoting their high vitamin-C content, harvesters travel down rivers via boat, pick the berries directly off the bush, and place them directly into coolers or freezers.
Like açai, camu camu deteriorates both physically and nutritionally before it can reach its desired place of import. Therefore, camu camu must be kept cool on its way to be prepared for sale.
Once the berries arrive at the processing plant, they are either slowly frozen or flash-frozen, depending on the distributor. They are then peeled, liquefied, and spray-dried. Finally, it is ready to be used in supplements, or as a loose powder for mixing into smoothies, yogurt, or just about anything you can eat. All camu camu powder must be used within a year; for the nutrition content declines the longer it goes uneaten.
With the rise in camu camu’s popularity comes the question of environmental exploitation and impact. Typically, the more popular a food becomes, the weaker its enforcement and regulation becomes. Since camu camu is a rainforest food, environmental integrity surrounding the growing process and harvest is a concern.
Thankfully, most of the world’s supply of camu camu is wild harvested, an agricultural practice that allows for both plant and animal biodiversity.
The opposite is true of monoculture agriculture, which is the practice of planting or growing one crop repeatedly. While this is a high-yield form of agriculture, it contributes to a drastic decline in soil quality and biodiversity.
This is why Sunfood, a supplier of raw and exotic superfoods to North America, uses only wild harvested camu camu, which it sells raw in powder form. When Jennifer Shultz of Sunfood spoke to Natural Solutions, she explained “anything that is grown and harvested in its naturally occurring state will be both better for the environment and higher in nutrition.”
What also affects nutrition is the method in which the camu camu is processed. Sunfood’s camu camu “is sanitized using organic, pesticide-free methods to make sure that the final product is safe for consumption.” And while shying away from pesticide laden fruit, Sunfood also does “not promote or use any type of additive or artificial sweetener” according to Shultz. This is unique since maltodextrin, a common food additive made from barley, corn, rice, or potatoes, is often used in the spray-drying process.
What makes camu camu so special is its extraordinary vitamin-C content of 2.4 to 3 grams per 100 grams of fruit—which doesn’t occur in any other fruit known to humankind. Such high doses of vitamin C are known to prevent cellular damage and thus prevent cancer, heart disease, common illness, as well as playing a vital role in collagen production. And while camu camu does contain less vitamin C than synthetically produced tablets, the quality of the natural vitamin C far surpasses that of laboratory versions.
Camu camu’s bioavailability is due to the whole blend of phytochemicals and antioxidants within the fruit. Shultz explains that “vitamins don’t occur in isolation in the wild. Most vitamin-C supplements today only have ascorbic acid, which is only one of the parts of the vitamin-C complex. Your body has to pull the rest of these components from its tissues to complete the complex if you only take synthetic vitamin C. But if you take a whole-food source of vitamin C, such as camu camu, your body doesn’t have to pull from its reserves.”
Essentially, no other fruit bears as much vitamin C, and no form of synthetic vitamin C can deliver the vitamin as effectively as camu camu can; our ancestors didn’t walk into a field or forest and pick ascorbic acid supplements off trees. Camu camu has also been said to treat depression, but the claim is still being debated since little research exists on camu camu alleviating it's symptoms; only self-reported, indirect evidence supports this claim. Some people hypothesize that depression stems from a lack of nutritional support for the central nervous system. If this is so, camu camu nourishes and stimulates the nervous system, thus relieving symptoms of depression.
This sentiment is echoed by nutritionist Gary Null, PhD, author of the Clinician’s Handbook of Natural Healing, who found that camu camu does have mood-balancing properties due to its high nutritional content.
The supplement industry is subject to little regulation from the United States government. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all imported fruit juices to be pasteurized for consumer safety, yet the pasteurization process literally renders the nutrients useless as they’re heated to such high temperatures.
“We do not recommend juices, because if they’re being sold, this means that they are pasteurized, which means it has been heated which kills most of the enzymes, vitamins, and mineral content,” says Shultz.
Although Shultz recommends using dried supplements rather than a juice or liquid because pasteurization destroys nutritional content, she warns that “most supplement companies and supplements are not regulated in the US, [therefore] a supplement company can modify their results about what is actually in the final product.” A supplement may say its made with camu camu, but the actual amount contained within the supplement may be miniscule and essentially useless—not to mention expensive. It’s best to research any supplement company you may purchase from to make sure you’re getting the quality you expect.
While still obscure in nature to most North Americans, the promise of unparalleled, whole, complex vitamin C promises that camu camu will be supplied to the shelves of health food stores and vitamin specialty shops for years to come.
For more information about Sunfood, please visit their website.