There aren’t too many fruits that are on the list of banned foods in the US, but ackee is one of them. However only the fresh fruit is banned, as while the canned version was illegal for many years it has since been permitted.
So, let’s explore this tropical fruit – what is it, and why will you never find fresh ackee for sale?
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What is ackee fruit?
Ackee fruit is a tropical food that originated in west Africa, but has since migrated to Jamaica a couple of hundred years ago and become extremely popular there.
It is similar to tomatoes and peppers in that it is technically a fruit (because it grows with seeds) but it is more commonly used as a vegetable, traditionally cooked with the national dish of Jamaica including salt fish like cod.
The fruit grows on the blighia sapida tree and is a member of the sapindaceae soapberry family with the lychee and longan. It looks like a bell pepper, except that when the fruit is ripened it begins to open up naturally, exposing the flesh and seeds within.
There are two main types of ackee fruit grown. Cheese ackee is more of a pale yellow, and is the more robust fruit that is generally sold in the US. The alternative is butter ackee, which is a darker yellow and has a more delicate texture.
Ackee fruit is banned for sale in the US as a fresh fruit, due to the toxicity of the unripe flesh and the seeds. Some canned products are sold under heavy regulation from the FDA. When sold in a can it is typically cooked and then brined.
What is ackee fruit used for?
Ackee is extremely popular in the Caribbean and has a number of uses:
- Ackee and saltfish is the national dish of Jamaica, with the fruit acting as a healthy and delicate partner for the heavily seasoned seafood
- Ackee is often used in other stir fry dishes due to its vibrant yellow color and rich nutrient content
- Ackee’s smooth texture lends itself well to soups, and can be mixed with tomato for a rich and creamy, hearty soup, especially suitable for vegans if prepared with coconut milk
- Because of that buttery texture, ackee is popular with vegan bakers for desserts, and is often the basis for vegan cakes
Ackee is unusual in the sense that it is mainly used as a savory side dish in the same way a vegetable would be, but it can be used in desserts too. It has a gentle nutty flavor with just a hint of sweetness that gives it a versatility unlike many other vegetables or fruits.
Ackee Fruit Poisoning:
So then, why is ackee fruit banned if it is so delicious and popular in some parts of the world? The answer lies in its toxicity.
There are parts of the ackee fruit that are never edible, while some are only edible when ripe. Unripe ackee fruit contains a toxin called hypoglycin A, while the seeds contain hypoglycin B. Both of these substances are extremely harmful to humans. They are converted in the body to a type of acid that can inhibit the beta oxidation of fatty acids, which causes the body to burn through its stored glucose.
The result is often hypoglycemia and a condition called Jamaican Vomiting Sickness, although this is sometimes just referred to as ackee poisoning or acute ackee fruit intoxication.
If someone ingests an unsafe ackee portion, they will begin to experience abdominal pain after around 4 hours. It’s a very serious condition and can result in falling into a coma, or death via fatal encephalopathy, which is why the fruit is taken so seriously and banned in the US.
While it is a rare condition caused only by the consumption of the fruit, you might have heard of it if you were a fan of medical drama ER – it featured in an episode in season 6.
Can ackee kill you?
Yes, ackee fruit can kill you if you eat the wrong part of the fruit or don’t wait until it is ripe. If you travel to a country where ackee is served fresh, make sure to only eat the arils once the fruit has naturally opened. Canned ackee is a safer option.
That’s because there is strict monitoring in place to ensure only ripe ackee arils are added to cans, and by then it has already been cooked too. Unripe ackee can cause the Jamaican Vomiting Sickness which is an acute illness that can lead to death within two days of consumption.
Why is ackee fruit illegal?
Ackee fruit is mostly illegal in the US due to its potential toxicity. Fresh ackee is completed banned by the FDA, while only selected canned ackee products are approved. Unripe ackee causes an acute illness that can poison and kill you quickly.
Ackee was completely banned in the US prior to 2000, at which point the FDA began to allow certain manufacturers to sell canned and frozen ackee under strict regulations. All imports of fresh ackee fruit are still illegal, and the canned and frozen goods are continuously monitored by the FDA’s approval teams.
Why is ackee dangerous?
Ackee is dangerous because the flesh and seeds contain hypoglycin A and B, which are toxins that cause a number of health issues in humans that can rapidly lead to a coma or even death. Ackee fruit should only be eaten when ripe, when the fruit naturally opens on the tree.
The seeds should never be consumed, only the arils – the name of the flesh inside. The fruit is commonly used in Jamaican dishes where it is boiled and cooked with cod.
What does the fruit ackee taste like?
The ackee aril – the flesh of the ripe fruit you can safely eat – has a slightly nutty taste that is very delicate. It tends to absorb the flavor of what it is cooked with, and in Jamaica is commonly prepared with salt fish.
Some have described ackee as having a slightly sweet kick similar to a garden pea, while the texture of cooked ackee is smooth like a bean. While the cooked fruit is sometimes compared to scrambled eggs, this is normally in color alone, not taste or texture – although some do think it has a similar consistency to eggs.
Is ackee healthy to eat?
Ackee fruit, when prepared safely, is a healthy food to eat, which high amounts of vitamin A, zinc and protein. It is high in fat but these are unsaturated and have been shown to fight cholesterol in the body.
Ackee is also high in fiber that can help to maintain a healthy digestive system and reduce the risk of colon diseases. The fruit contains niacin, which can improve the health of your nervous system, and vitamin C which is crucial in the production of collagen which benefits hair and skin.
How safe is canned ackee?
Canned ackee that is sold in the US is strictly regulated by the FDA to ensure it is safe to eat. Only ripe ackee from the safe parts of the fruit is cooked and then canned, ensuring you will not be poisoned.
Only selected manufacturers can sell ackee fruit in the US, with the fruit generally banned to prevent unregulated and potentially toxic ackee fruit from being released in the market. As long as you buy canned ackee from a reputable retailer you should be safe.
If you order your canned ackee online, make sure the can is not dented – cans with a dent, particularly on the seam of the can, may have a broken seal, which can allow bacteria to render the food unsafe.
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Ackee fruit is unusual in that it is almost completely banned in the US barring some special exemptions, and yet is the national fruit and part of the national dish of a country not too far away in Jamaica.
Make sure that you only ever eat ackee fruit that has been properly ripened and prepared, and if you aren’t sure then avoid it. Never consume the black seed of the fruit and if you experience vomiting then seek immediate medical attention.
Don’t panic though if you’re buying canned ackee from a trusted source – you’ll be able to enjoy this unique fruit in a number of dishes and enjoy some excellent health benefits.