THE FULL STORY
“Grown in the wild and picked by hand, the baobab is Africa’s most legendary superfood”
The African baobab (Adansonia digitata) is a large tree commonly found in the thorny woodlands of African savannahs. The largest examples of baobab trees are over 30m tall and have circumferences of 30m as well. Baobab trees are long-lived, with some known to be over 2,000 years old. Despite never being grown domestically or farmed commercially, over the many years throughout the baobab’s history a plethora of uses have been discovered and developed using its fruit, seeds, leaves and bark, ranging from traditional medicinal uses, using the fruit as a source of nutrition, and the seeds and their oil for personal care.
The baobab tree’s fruit, also known as baobab, has been consumed for thousands of years across Africa and are unique in many respects. The fruit are spherical or oval in shape, composed of a hard, velvety yellow-green outer shell on the outside and fruit pulp, filaments and seeds on the inside. Baobab fruit is unique in that it dries naturally on the branches of the tree, so when cracked open the fruit pulp is revealed as small, powdery, dehydrated segments that enclose multiple oil-rich seeds. These segments are commonly ground down into a fine powder and consumed in many different types of foods and drinks.
Perhaps one of the most peculiar facts about the baobabs, however, are how they come alive at night. Not only do they provide shelter for nocturnal animals such as bats and owls, but they are one of the only trees in the world whose flowers bloom at night, and generally last around 24 hours.
As a result of its legendary status the baobab has gathered many names over the years. Most famously the tree is known as both Africa’s “tree of life” and the “upside down tree,” both inspired by the myths and legends accumulated over generations.
Baobab is highly nutritious and contains high levels of antioxidants, amino acids, fibre, and micronutrients, especially when compared against other popular superfruits. This means that baobab fruit can support a wide range of functions in the body, including supporting good gut health, increasing energy levels and increasing your metabolism.
Baobab is also said to be an adaptogen. Adaptogens are substances which help fight stress in the body through supporting a wide range of physiological functions.
A typical Western diet is fibre deficient by up to 33% on average according to the British Nutrition Foundation. This has been driven by years of consuming too many highly processed and high-sugar content foods.
Thankfully, baobab powder is incredibly high in fibre, approximately 50% by weight, comprised of roughly 67% soluble fibre and 33% insoluble fibre – both crucial for maintaining a healthy gut.
Soluble fibre, or dietary fibre, is important for many things.
It acts as a regulator of your blood sugars by adjusting the release of sugars from your stored reserves into your blood, which helps to reduce energy spikes and crashes throughout the day. Soluble fibre is also a prebiotic – prebiotics keep your gut healthy & happy by creating an environment where your body’s good bacteria (probiotics) can thrive.
Insoluble fibre, on the other hand, also has many other gut health benefits, specifically related to digestion. As you may have guessed from the name, insoluble fibre is not broken down in your stomach or small intestine, but acts as roughage which helps move waste along your large intestine.
Baobab contains very high levels of vitamin C. Vitamin C is essential for the immune system as it supports the body’s defence systems, as well as helping regulate normal metabolism.
This helps the body sustain energy levels throughout the day and reduces fatigue.
Vitamin C aids in cellular respiration (metabolism, or how our body uses sugar to make energy). It stops the build up of the chemicals that cause tiredness and revitalises your body by reducing fatigue.
“Vitamin C helps to reduce fatigue, supports a healthy immune system and promotes normal metabolic function”
According to the Journal of Nutrition, baobab also has the highest antioxidant content of any fruit: twice that of goji berries, more than blueberries and pomegranate combined and twenty times that of green tea (Chandare et al., 2009 and PhytoTrade). Antioxidants are substances, typically vitamins C and E, which fight oxidising agents called free radicals.
Free radicals are a by-product of normal bodily functions, yet can be damaging as they move around the body taking electrons from other molecules, which in turn has a destabilising effect called oxidative stress. This can cause damage to your DNA, skin, cell membranes and proteins within the body. Oxidative stress has also been linked to the development of a wide range of diseases. Antioxidants keep these free radicals in check by giving the free radicals the electrons they need, without becoming destabilised themselves.
The baobab tree, inclusive of its fruit, bark, leaves and seeds have all been recorded to have a multitude of uses, including as food, traditional medicines and personal care products. More than three hundred traditional uses have been documented in Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, South Africa, Senegal, and Zimbabwe, and many more across the rest of Africa.
FOOD & DRINK
The fruit pulp and leaves are the most commonly consumed parts of the baobab tree.
The fruit pulp is naturally dry, and is either broken into small pieces and eaten whole as a snack (sometimes covered with spices or sugar), or more normally ground into a powder and mixed with milk or water to make a drink, or mixed into soups, stews or sauces.
The leaves are also a staple food for many tribes. They can be cooked to create a spinach-like dish or mixed in to stews or soups, or dried and ground up to be used as a seasoning.
The Hadza tribe in Tanzania is one such tribe who rely on the baobab fruit as a source of nutrition. The Hadza are one of the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in the world, living in Northern Tanzania on the Serengeti plains. As documented by King’s College professor Tim Spector and the BBC in 2017, the Hadza drink baobab fruit mixed with water every morning. This provides them with a rich source of fibre and vitamin C, giving them the energy and nutrients they need for their physically active lifestyle.
As a result of their unique diet and high consumption of baobab, Professor Spector’s study showed that the Hadza tribe have the healthiest guts (or microbiome) in world! This was concluded by measuring the quantity and diversity of healthy bacteria in their microbiome, compared to a typical man or woman elsewhere in the world.
Baobab seed oil is made from pressing the seeds inside the fruit to extrude a nutrient rich oil. It is traditionally used to help nourish and treat both skin and hair. The oil is high in linoleic, oleic, palmitic and linolenic acids, which are anti-inflammatory, and can help moisturise, heal and slow the aging process of skin, as well as provide shine and strength when used in hair.
MYTHS & LEGENDS
Many myths and legends about the baobab tree exist across Africa, typically covering similar themes including its grand size and appearance or witchcraft.
Here are a few of the most common:
How the “upside down tree” got its name… Many years ago, the baobab tree existed in the Heavens and was thought to be “too proud” by the Gods, as the grand baobabs lorded over the smaller trees. Many believe that the Gods uprooted the baobabs and threw them upside down in anger down towards the Earth, causing them to land with their branches underground and roots in the air!
Evil spirits… Common across Africa is the belief that ghosts and evil spirits haunt these mighty trees. If one is to cut the trees down for any reason, the spirits are released and will haunt the culprit responsible!
Witchcraft… (Variations on the following story exist widely across many towns and communities; this one comes from the coastal city Malindi in Kenya, in an area of the city called Baobab)…There is a famous baobab tree in the centre of Baobab where it is known that female ghosts dressed in all white come out at night. One night a woman suspected her husband, Ali, of going to the tree at night to visit the women. She became suspicious and after following him one night she came across two women dressed in white. She asked them, “where is Ali, my husband?” One of the women in white replied “Ali is my husband,” and a fight ensued. As legend has it, Ali’s wife returned home the next morning, beaten up, and with her clothes ripped. From that day onwards she was unable to speak, stopped taking care of herself and became an outcast from society…
Legends… In Zambia, there is a giant baobab tree that is worshipped by locals, even though it is said to be haunted by a large python. Before European settlers arrived, the python answered the locals’ prayers for rain, crops and good hunting. It is said that on the day the European’s arrived they killed the python, which ultimately lead to a fall in the tribe’s prosperity.
Perhaps because of these myths and legends, or maybe in spite of them, baobabs have a prominent role in many communities across Africa, and have done for hundreds and thousands of years. Even today, whilst some of the stories are no longer believed in their entirety, it is still quite common for baobab trees to play a central role in communities. At times the local baobab tree might be the meeting place for village elders in rural areas, or even where people can gather to resolve conflict.
“Grown in the wild and picked by hand, the baobab is Africa’s most legendary superfood”
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