Heart of Tartness
The Amazonian Berry So Nice They Named it Twice
If you’re anything like me from about two hours ago, the words ‘Camu Camu’ sound more like something you’d shout at your television during a ‘Famously French’ category of Jeopardy than something you’d want in your coffee.
Trust me though, if you’re in need of a little boost to your immune system, or a natural mood-raising, longevity-aiding, smoothie-ready something, than Camu Camu might just be the wild South American superfood for you. First though, a little dive into the story behind these little guys.
Native to Peru and other parts of the amazon, the Camu Camu berry comes from a shrub of the same name that grows along riverbanks and around other water bodies. Until around 2000, the plant wasn’t widely planted or commercially cultivated, although it was locally known for its curative powers, and even then, the little cherry-shaped berries were rarely consumed because of their righteous tartness. That is, until one day a Lima-based Agricultural undergrad from Tokyo stumbled upon an encyclopedia entry about this enigmatic acid-bomb. After a little more research, the 22 year-old decided maybe it was worth checking out.
Takayuki Sazuki had been to Peru the year prior, and saw the abject poverty that plagued the banana, cacao, and coffee farmers (1). He wanted to help, “I looked at every crop that existed (in Peru),” Suzuki said in [an] interview. “I searched and searched for something that would make a profit for these people. And finally I found it — Camu Camu.”
He toured schools across the country educating locals on how to cultivate and harvest this unusual and extraordinary crop, and soon thereafter his teachings took root. Only one thing stood in his way. Cocaine.
At the time, the coca plant (the raw ingredient needed to make the white stuff) was responsible for a hefty percentage of the Peruvian planters’ income, and though exceedingly illegal and risky, the crop was extremely lucrative. Suzuki skirted under the radar, trying to convince these farmers to abandon the cocaine trade in exchange for something more legitimate, and convinced more than a few gun-toting individuals that Camu Camu was where the future lied.
A decade after Suzuki’s minor Camu Camu crusade, Japan accounted for all but 1% of the world’s Camu Camu imports, shipping in almost 95 tons of the stuff in 2004. Camu Camu exploded on the archipelago with frozen desserts, local liqueurs, and even skincare products emerging from the humble Amazonian berry (2).
The reason why isn’t exactly mysterious either -- with more Vitamin C than nearly 60 oranges by weight, Camu Camu is the closest thing to a ready-made Emergen-C mother nature has to offer. Additionally, it’s been shown that the kind of acidic punch Camu Camu packs could be instrumental in improving liver health (3). Along with more than a few essential amino acids, and an appealing tartness when used in moderation, it’s still pretty amazing that a rare Amazonian berry could become ubiquitous in Japan, but given everything it's got going for it, it's not really surprising so many people fell in love with the stuff.
And then, there wasn’t enough Camu Camu (4). Demand from Japan placed an enormous strain on the small Peruvian producers, and products that were adulterated with artificial colors and flavors began to emerge out of the small farms. With home-grown regulations lacking in a big way, the product wasn’t consistent enough for distributors and buyers, and Camu Camu exports waned (although it never really faded away entirely in Japan). Now Camu Camu is on the rebound, with purchases in Italy, the United States, and South Korea surging big time.
With more and more people trying to incorporate superfoods into their diets every day, Camu Camu may have already popped up on your social media feed courtesy of that dude that always takes pictures of his morning smoothies. So if you’re interested in upping your Açai bowl game to the next level, supporting the Peruvian economy, or just getting a healthy dollop of antioxidant and energy-boosting amazonian goodness, this little berry might just be the ticket. Oh yeah, and it’s gonna be in the Metabrew: Summer Edition hitting shelves in JUNE!!!
[P.S. Please please please pay attention to the label when buying Camu Camu -- always buy fair-trade to ensure that the farmers of this wonder-berry are being treated fairly and like real human beings]
1. Ito, Masami (2004, November). Peru Cash Crop Bears Fruit. Japan Times
2. Agafonov, Artem (2016, May). Camu Camu Considered a Taste Sensation in Japan
3. Axe, Josh. Camu Camu, A New Superfood with More Vitamin C than Any Other Food
4. Ulcher-Rota, Ivan (2017, March). What Happened to Camu Camu? The Rise, Fall (and Recovery) of an Amazon 'Super Food'