If you've seen baobab listed on an ingredient list and wondered what it is, you've come to the right place. Here's everything you need to know about this ancient fruit.
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Anyone who has grown up with classic Disney movies remembers the iconic scene where Rafiki, the wise mandrill in The Lion King, cracks open a fruit and uses its juices to anoint Simba the future ruler of Pride Rock. However, unless viewers are familiar with traditional medicine and foodstuffs in Africa, Australia, or the Middle East, they probably won’t recognize the fruit that Rafiki smears across Simba’s forehead. That fruit, called baobab, shares the name of the tree that it derives from, and while you likely won’t see its unprocessed version in major grocery stores anytime soon, you might end up seeing the fruit listed as an included ingredient, particularly in health foods and nutritional supplements. 

Baobab (bay-oh-bab), also called monkey bread or monkey tamarind, is a large fruit that looks a bit like a young coconut, although it doesn’t share the coconut’s hairiness. It’s called monkey bread or monkey tamarind not only because various primates love it, but also because it mimics a tamarind tree, another tree which bears edible fruit in parts of Africa. Baobab largely grows in countries with arid regions like Madagascar, Botswana, and Namibia. When eaten raw, the fruit is rather tasteless and powdery, according to the BBC. In some countries where the baobab tree grows, locals mix the sticky, powdery substance into water to create a baobab infused beverage. It can also be made into jam, which tends to lend it a flavor akin to lemon curd. 

In regions where baobab trees are native, locals have used the fruit and various other parts of the plant for a number of culinary and medicinal uses. It’s loaded with nutrients like vitamin C, potassium and phosphorus, and the pulp can also be used to boost the immune system, reduce fever, and improve gastrointestinal health. Not to mention, baobab fruit acts as a natural preservative, which makes it an appealing additive for companies that want to create synthetic-free foodstuffs. In stores and online, it’s largely sold in powder form to be used as a supplement, though it can also be found in products like Kencko’s instant smoothies and Tiiga’s electrolyte-boosting drink mixes

Sadly, baobab fruit may eventually become a thing of the past. Researchers have found that many of the oldest baobab trees, some of which have survived for 2,000 years, died between 2005 and 2017. It’s still unclear what led to the demise of those ancient trees, but scientists believe that climate change could have played a role. Witness Konzanayi, who received a doctorate in baobab governance from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, told Nature that the disappearance of the baobab tree would not only destroy a key medicinal and culinary plant, it would also represent a devastating spiritual blow for many who grew up in regions where the tree is indiginous.

“To an African person who identifies with these trees, once a tree becomes this big, it becomes sacred. They become more venues for spirits of the land,” he said in an interview with Nature. “To ecologists, it is just the dying of trees, but to an African person, the death of such big trees means the death of culture; it means the death of identity; it means the death of spirituality.”

Ecological threats aren’t the only ones that baobab trees face. As with other foodstuffs that have previously been rare or unavailable in European and American markets, baobab could be threatened by overharvesting if its popularity outpaces conservation efforts. Thankfully, women like Mwadawa Luziga in Tanzania have formed groups explicitly to protect baobab trees and provide information on why their continued existence is so important, according to a World Bank blog post discussing the fruit’s role in international trade and concerns surrounding its potential exploitation. 

For fans of nutrient-dense fruits and classic Disney movies, the good news is that the baobab tree is nowhere near extinct. And to keep it that way, consumers should do their best to make sure any baobab they ingest is sourced ethically and in cooperation with local farmers who have historically tended to and benefitted from the plant. A 2012 study in Botswana Notes and Records also notes that human use of the tree has increased branch loss and the spread of rot fungi. Still, if baobab cultivators can adjust the way they harvest bark, fruits, and roots from the trees, and if some of the trees can be allowed to recover from human-caused damage, then this archetypal giant might be able to flourish for centuries and millennia to come.