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Ackee: Good for the Heart & Gut or Poisonous Toxin?

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Ackee - Dr. Axe

If you’re at all familiar with Caribbean cuisine, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard of the ackee. Widely enjoyed across many different tropical regions, the ackee fruit is well-known for its mild flavor, creamy texture and scrambled egg-like appearance. It’s also high in fiber, plus packs a good amount of vitamin A, fiber and protein into each serving.

However, although this delicious fruit is often enjoyed for its unique flavor and impressive nutrient profile, it has also garnered a good amount of controversy and is associated with a number of adverse health effects. In fact, in some cases, this fruit can actually be considered a poisonous fruit due to the presence of several dangerous toxins found in its unripened state. Ready to learn more? Let’s take a closer look at this unique fruit and how it can impact your health.


What Is Ackee?

The ackee tree is a plant native to West Africa that belongs to the soapberry family. It is closely related to the lychee and longan. This evergreen tree grows to around 30 feet tall and produces large leaves, fragrant green flowers and a pear-shaped fruit known as the ackee, achee or ayee fruit.

As the fruit slowly begins to ripen, it goes from green to red to orange and produces three large seeds covered by a soft, creamy white flesh that is similar in appearance to scrambled eggs. As the national Jamaican fruit, it can be commonly spotted in many different types of Caribbean cuisine, including ackee and saltfish, the national dish of Jamaica.

Not only is the fruit super flavorful, but it also packs a nutritional punch. It supplies a good amount of protein, fiber and vitamin A in each serving. However, it’s also been associated with several negative effects on health and can even be toxic in some cases. That makes it all the more important to practice proper preparation and select only safe varieties of the fruit.


Ackee Nutrition Facts

The ackee nutrition profile packs in a good amount of fiber and protein. It also contains an array of several important micronutrients, including vitamin A, iron and calcium.

A 1/2-cup serving of ackee in brine contains approximately:

  • 140 calories
  • 11 grams carbohydrates
  • 4 grams protein
  • 9 grams fat
  • 2 grams dietary fiber
  • 500 international units vitamin A (10 percent DV)
  • 1.08 milligrams iron (6 percent DV)
  • 40 milligrams calcium (4 percent DV)

Is Ackee Good for Bad for You? Benefits & Dangers of Ackee

Ackee is a nutritious fruit that is high in several important vitamins and minerals. It can be a safe and healthy addition to your diet. However, there are also some concerns about ackee that should also be considered, especially when the fruit itself is consumed raw and unripened. Here’s what you need to know.

Is Ackee Good for You?

Ackee is a great source of fiber, cramming two grams into a single half-cup serving. This is incredibly important, especially when it comes to digestive health. Studies show that increasing your intake of fiber can aid in the treatment of digestive issues such as intestinal ulcers, hemorrhoids, constipation, diverticulitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Not only that, but upping your intake of fiber through foods like ackee can also impact other aspects of health as well. In fact, some research indicates that a higher intake of fiber can decrease blood pressure and cholesterol levels while also stabilizing blood sugar and increasing insulin sensitivity.

Plus, ackee contains a good amount of protein. Studies show that following a high-protein diet can lower blood sugar levels and improve overall blood sugar control in people with diabetes. Meanwhile, fiber slows the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream to help maintain normal blood sugar levels over time.

The combination of protein and fiber can also be beneficial when it comes to weight loss. Fiber moves slowly through the body, which can promote satiety to help curb cravings. Protein, on the other hand, has been shown to slow the emptying of the stomach to reduce appetite and help keep you feeling fuller for longer. Combining ackee with other protein-rich, high-fiber foods can be a useful strategy to minimize hunger and boost weight loss.

In addition to its fiber and protein content, ackee is also rich in vitamin A. Vitamin A can enhance eye health and protect against conditions like macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of vision loss. According to one study, people who supplemented with a multivitamin containing vitamin A as well as other micronutrients, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and copper, had a 25 percent reduced risk of developing advanced macular degeneration over six years.

Vitamin A is also key when it comes to immune function. In fact, a deficiency in this important fat-soluble vitamin can alter and impair the function of immune cells. That could potentially increase susceptibility to illness and infection.

Dangers of Ackee: How Poisonous Is Ackee? Can Ackee Kill You?

When consumed fresh, fully ripened ackee is perfectly safe. Can you eat raw ackee, and what happens if you eat raw ackee? The unripe fruit contains high amounts of hypoglycin A and B, two toxins that can cause a range of severe symptoms, including low blood sugar, vomiting, weakness and even coma or death. This condition is sometimes referred to as “Jamaican vomiting sickness” and only occurs when the unripened fruit is consumed. Thus, you don’t want to consume it raw.

Because of the number of ackee poison cases reported and the dangers associated with eating the fruit unripened, the FDA actually banned all ackee products altogether up until the year 2000. Today, only canned or frozen ackee products are permitted in the United States, and the import of fresh ackee is still not allowed. Additionally, the FDA still closely monitors the hypoglycin content of all ackee products to ensure the safety of imported products.

It’s also important to keep in mind the caloric content of the ackee fruit. While it can definitely be a beneficial tool for weight loss, it’s also relatively high in calories compared to other types of fruit. This can contribute to weight gain if intake is not kept in moderation.

Because it’s mostly found canned in brine, it’s also fairly high in sodium, with about 125 milligrams in a single half-cup serving. This is especially important for those with high blood pressure. Reducing your intake of sodium is one of the most effective strategies to help lower blood pressure. Plus, the dangers of high sodium intake extend way beyond heart health. Studies also show that excess sodium intake may also be linked to a higher risk of bone loss and stomach cancer as well. Fortunately, rinsing off canned foods before consuming can significantly decrease sodium content to help protect against adverse effects on health.


Ackee vs. Acai

Besides the similarities that they share when it comes to their respective names, these two tropical fruits are also both well-known for providing a one-of-a-kind flavor as well as an assortment of unique health benefits. However, there are several notable differences that set these two fruits apart.

For starters, the açaí berry is harvested from the açaí palm, a species of tree that is native to northern South America and belongs to a completely different family of plants than ackee. In addition to the antioxidant-rich fruit produced by the tree, it is also cultivated for its wood and leaves as well as hearts of palm, a vegetable harvested from the inner core of the palm.

While the ackee fruit is large and reddish-orange in color, the açaí berry is small, round and dark. It’s most often available in freeze-dried or powdered form and attracts a high price tag given its superfood status as well as the benefits it boasts. It’s also sometimes added to health products, such as supplements, drinks, capsules, juices and skin care products, thanks to its concentrated antioxidant content.


Where to Find and How to Use Ackee

Importing or selling fresh ackee is illegal in the United States. Why is ackee illegal in the U.S.? It’s due to the potential risk of toxicity when unripe fruit is consumed. However, it’s still possible to find frozen or canned varieties, and it’s often available in most major grocery stores or specialty markets alongside other canned goods. If you’re having difficulty finding it in a store near you, it’s also possible to purchase from online retailers as well.

The ackee taste is often described as mild, much like hearts of palm, but it has a creamy yet delicate texture that sets it apart from most other fruits. It works well in savory dishes and is the star ingredient in ackee and saltfish, the national dish of Jamaica. It can also be used in salads, soups and soufflés to bring a hint of tropical flavor to your favorite recipes. Alternatively, use it in pizza, quiche, fritters or even beverages to bump up the health benefits even more.


Ackee Recipes + Substitutes

This fruit is frequently served alongside fish, such as codfish or red herring. Its flavor is also sometimes described as mild yet slightly bitter. It works especially well in savory dishes. Some say that it’s a good meat substitute and can be used interchangeably in place of other ingredients, such as tempeh, tofu, jackfruit or seitan, for certain recipes.

Need a few more ideas for how to use this tropical fruit? Here are a few delicious recipes that feature this nutritious fruit:


History/Facts

Although ackee is native to West Africa, it’s perhaps most well-known as the national fruit of Jamaica, where it was originally imported in the late 1700s. In the years since, it has become a staple in Caribbean cuisine and is now cultivated in tropical areas around the world.

It earned its scientific name, Blighia sapida, in honor of Captain William Bligh, an officer of the Royal Navy who first brought the fruit from Jamaica to England in 1793. Its more common name is derived from its West African name, which is “akye fufo.”

Today, it is a central ingredient in many different Caribbean dishes. In the United States, the import of the fresh fruit is banned due to the potentially toxic effects it can exert if consumed before it’s fully ripened. However, it is still widely available in both frozen and canned form and enjoyed for its flavor, versatility and nutrient profile.


Precautions

Although perfectly safe when prepared properly, unripe ackee contains hypoglycin A and B, two toxins that can be incredibly detrimental to health. However, canned and frozen varieties, which are the forms most commonly found in the United States, are carefully monitored by the FDA to ensure that they contain safe levels of these potentially harmful compounds. If you do live in a region where fresh ackee is available, be sure to wait until the fruit is fully ripened before consuming and report any negative symptoms to your doctor immediately. The most commonly reported side effects of toxicity include vomiting, weakness and low blood sugar.

Additionally, keep in mind that this fruit is relatively high in calories and sodium. While it can definitely be a safe and healthy ingredient used as part of a balanced, well-rounded diet, be sure to keep your intake in moderation to prevent adverse side effects. To reduce the sodium content, you can also rinse off canned varieties with water before consuming to remove excess salt.

Finally, note that, although rare, some people may be allergic to ackee. If you experience any food allergy symptoms like hives, itching, swelling or difficulty breathing after eating ackee, discontinue use and consult with a trusted health care practitioner.


Final Thoughts

  • The ackee is a fruit that belongs to the soapberry family of plants. Although native to West Africa, it’s most commonly found in tropical regions around the Caribbean, including Jamaica.
  • This fruit is high in fiber and also contains a good amount of several other important nutrients, including protein, vitamin A, iron and calcium.
  • Thanks to its nutrient profile, it may help promote digestive health, enhance weight loss, stabilize blood sugar and improve heart health. It could also aid in the prevention of macular degeneration and help promote immune function.
  • While ripened ackee is perfectly safe, unripe fruit contains high levels of two dangerous toxins that can be detrimental to health. Selecting only fruit that is fully ripe or opting for canned and frozen varieties is the safest way to avoid negative side effects.
  • However, when prepared properly and consumed in moderation, ackee can be a tasty and nutritious addition to a healthy and balanced diet alongside other fruits and vegetables.

Read Next: Guarana: Fat-Burning, Energy-Boosting Powerhouse or Harmful Supplement?

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