The baobab is perhaps the best known tree in Africa and grows in abundance in hot, dry lowland areas such as the Rift Valley. Its spreading crown of branches is bare of leaves for much of the year and reminiscent of a root system, hence the baobab’s common name: “The Upside Down Tree”. Its stout grey trunk can reach enormous sizes, in some instances over 25 metres in circumference. The baobab belongs to its own botanical family – the Bombacaceae – and is extremely long-lived. It is common for trees to live to over 1,000 years and some specimens are believed to be as old as 3,000 years.
Baobab fruits are oval in shape and are formed from elaborate white flowers which are pollinated by bats. Bees produce an almost white honey from its flowers. The fruit has a hard, woody shell with a velvety yellow-green coating. Inside the shell are the large oil-rich seeds, the fruit powder and fibres. Baobab fruit is harvested in Southern Africa between February and May. Baobab fruit powder is a pale powder that forms naturally inside the fruits of the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata). It has an exotic tangy flavour due to its content of citric, malic and tartaric acids and is exceptionally nutritious containing high natural levels of antioxidants, essential minerals including calcium, potassium, iron and magnesium, and vitamin C.
What is it used for?
Baobab has as many antioxidants as goji berries, and more calcium than milk. It has more iron than red meat, more potassium than a banana and more magnesium than spinach. African people have treasured the baobab tree and its fruit for thousands of years calling it “The Tree of Life”. The fruit powder is mixed with water and sugar to make a popular and refreshing sherbet-like drink. The powder is also used for porridge, sauces and other dishes and as a substitute for cream of tartar in baking, and a fermenting agent in traditional brews. African people eat the leaves of the baobab, which can be pounded to make a relish, and use the fibrous bark to make ropes, colourful mats, baskets and fishing nets. The red fibre of the Baobab fruit is a new product on the market, as it has particularly high anti-oxidant levels, which makes it extremely interesting as a neutraceutical. Possible applications are being developed by specialists to help work the fibre into new and innovative applications. The fruit powder has a high pectin content (around 25%), and so is especially useful for products where binding and thickening is needed. Baobab fruit powder is also used in a wide range of food and drink products such as:
- Smoothies and juices
- Cereals, cereal bars and snacks
- Ice creams, yoghurts and dairy desserts
- Jams, sauces, marinades and condiments
- Speciality teas
- Health supplements
Baobab fruit extract is derived from baobab fruit powder, but has had the natural pectin content removed. The extract has all the unique flavour of baobab – described as ‘caramel pear with undertones of grapefruit’ – but is clear in solution and without the binding and thickening properties of the fruit powder. Baobab fruit extract is a nutritious and delicious flavouring where a clear solution is required, for example soft drinks, juice drinks and flavoured waters. The extract is also used very successfully as a flavour enhancer for other fruits such as tinned pears or peaches.
Medicinally, baobab fruit powder has many applications. It is taken to treat fevers, gastric complaints (perhaps due to its high magnesium content), malaria, haemoptysis (the coughing of blood from the lungs) and vitamin C deficiency. The fruit powder is also used as a general health tonic, particularly among children, pregnant women and the elderly, perhaps due to its high calcium content.
Baobab seed oil is semi-fluid, golden yellow and gently scented and does not dry out on contact with air, so has a demonstrably longer shelf-life than many other natural seed oils. Although it is edible, its commercial use is primarily in the cosmetics industry, as follows:
- Skin care products (moisturisers)
- Lip balms (anti-chapping)
- Sun care products
- Hair care products (to add body and shine and combat dry scalp)
- Nail care (strengthens nails against breakage)
- Massage oils.