There aren’t too many fruits on the list of banned foods in the US, but ackee is one of them. However, only 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). Still, 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. It is a member of the Sapindaceae soapberry family with the lychee and longan. It looks like a bell pepper, except when the fruit is ripened, it opens 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 generally sold in the US. The alternative is butter ackee, a darker yellow with 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. However, some canned products are sold under heavy regulation by 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 several 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. It can be mixed with tomato for a rich, creamy, hearty soup, especially for vegans if prepared with coconut milk.
- Because of that buttery texture, ackee is popular with vegan bakers for desserts. It is often the basis for vegan cakes.
Ackee is unusual in that it is mainly used as a savory side dish in the same way a vegetable would, but it can be used in desserts too. It has a gentle nutty flavor with just a hint of sweetness that gives it 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. This is because unripe ackee fruit contains a toxin called hypoglycin A, while the seeds contain hypoglycin B. Both of these substances are highly harmful to humans. They are converted in the body to an 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. However, this is sometimes referred to as ackee poisoning or acute ackee fruit intoxication.
If someone ingests an unsafe ackee portion, they will experience abdominal pain after around 4 hours. It’s a severe 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 the 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, only eat the arils once the fruit has naturally opened. Canned ackee is a safer option.
That’s because strict monitoring is 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 Jamaican Vomiting Sickness, 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. The FDA altogether banned fresh ackee, while only selected canned ackee products were approved. Unripe ackee causes an acute illness that can poison and kill you quickly.
Ackee was banned entirely in the US before 2000. At that point, the FDA began to allow certain manufacturers to sell canned and frozen ackee under strict regulations. However, all imports of fresh ackee fruit are still illegal, and the FDA’s approval teams continuously monitor canned and frozen goods.
Why Is Ackee Dangerous?
Ackee is dangerous because the flesh and seeds contain hypoglycins A and B, toxins that cause many health issues in humans that can rapidly lead to a coma or even death. Therefore, 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. Instead, the fruit is commonly used in Jamaican dishes, 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 delicate and slightly nutty taste. 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 generally in color alone, not taste or texture – although some 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 which can help to maintain a healthy digestive system and reduce the risk of colon diseases. In addition, the fruit contains niacin, which can improve the health of your nervous system, and vitamin C, which is crucial in producing collagen, which benefits hair and skin.
How Safe Is Canned Ackee?
Canned ackee 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. The fruit is generally banned to prevent unregulated and potentially toxic ackee fruit from being released in the market. You should be safe if you buy canned ackee from a reputable retailer.
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 because it is almost entirely banned in the US, barring some special exemptions. Yet, it 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 adequately ripened and prepared, and if you aren’t sure, then avoid it. Likewise, never consume the black seed of the fruit, and if you experience vomiting, 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 several dishes and enjoy some excellent health benefits.