The vast diversity of the Amazon jungle is hard to comprehend if you have never seen it and even difficult to understand standing in the middle of it. Everything is so lush and green, so densely overgrown and wild.
To an outsider, it looks all the same but to the native people of the Amazon, each plant, each leaf, each bug and flower represents ancestral knowledge. This plant is great for pain, that one is delicious in soup, that one is poisonous but useful on hunting arrow tips.
The biodiversity of the Amazon jungle is topped by no other place on earth and it takes true local knowledge, gathered and passed down through generations, to even begin to understand it all and the relationship each plant or animal plays in the wider ecosystem.
It is estimated that indigenous Amazonian tribes regularly collect and can identify over 2,000 useful plant species.
It is no wonder then that the traditional Amazonian diet is quite diverse.
Filled with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, bush meat, insects, fish, and other jungle resources, the people of the Amazon have historically been extremely healthy.
Ingredients and cooking techniques vary between regions but across the board, native tribes seem to have figured out how to not only survive but thrive in this demanding environment.
Superfoods seem to be the norm rather than the exception here. From acai berries to camu camu fruit to sacha inchi seeds, everywhere you look it seems the Amazon jungle has a nutrient packed morsel just waiting to be enjoyed.
Combine them all and you get not only a very diverse, but also extremely healthy traditional diet.
The jungle to an outsider can seem to have an endless supply of trees, filled with every variety of healthy fruit, nut, and seed you can imagine. The truth is though that despite the bounty of the Amazon, native people really did have to fight for their place in the jungle, learning where and how to find the superfoods that would keep them healthy and full.
Take a look at the marketing for the next Amazonian superfood you come across. More likely than not, it will express some sort of claim of having “discovered” the new product deep in the Amazon jungle. It makes sense for the company - by “discovering” a new superfood they become the heroes of the story, driving up sales.
In reality though, there are few, if any, undiscovered superfoods left to find.
You see, it is only through generations of native people trying, experimenting, and survive in the Amazon that we know what foods are even a potential for superfood status.
It is not scientists or explorer out in the jungle finding the next superfood. Rather, it is the clever businessman or company seeking out the knowledge that is already there, looking where they can make a profit.
In total, less than 1% of all Amazonian plants have been tested for their health or medicinal benefits. Those that have been tested, were carefully selected by listening and paying attention to what plants were already used by native tribes.
Acai was not discovered by outsiders. It was simply noticed that the berry seemed to be a popular and healthy treat. Once tested, the “new superfood” was packaged up and shipped down the river and out of the jungle, where it could make a profit for a few smart businessmen.
There has always been commercial interest in the Amazon, from the very first European explorers looking for treasures to send back to the royal court.
From gold and oil miners to rare lumber exporters, the Amazon seemed both bountiful and endless. Obviously this is not the case and as lumber and mining rights have been restricted, new profiteers moved in to discover what else the Amazon might be hiding.
The first scientific expeditions into the Amazon often focused around medicinal plants used by the native people. Big pharma is called big for a reason and finding new cures and treatments is central to profits.
Using native knowledge, scientists have been able to test, synthesize, and create hundreds of new drug treatments.
Soon people began to realize it was not just the medicinal plants that held value though.
As the modern world beyond the Amazon moves ever further down the monocrop, industrialized food path, overall health sits on a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral. People are looking for alternatives from fad diets to superfoods and it makes sense to look towards our past when humans lived closer and more in harmony with nature.
Few places have as much preserved ancestral knowledge as the Amazon.
Remote tribes and the vastness of the jungle has allowed many indigenous ingredients and culinary techniques to survive, intact with the knowledge of what and how certain plants can help.
Amazonian food has become big business from the exportation of superfoods to the marketing of week or month long “shaman diet” expeditions promising to help cure or treat particularly serious health issues.
While there are some benefits to this trend - knowledge about what cures or healthy foods the jungle holds is once again valued by local communities - there are equally serious consequences.
First, we must consider the social and environment cost of exporting what the Amazon has to offer.
Some crops, like acai, encourage ethical wild jungle harvesting, reducing the incentive for destructive slash and burn farming. At the same time, even wild harvesting can cause issues - case in point the over harvesting of brazil nuts which has resulted in drastically less brazil nut tree sprouts.
Even more serious, we must consider the exportation infrastructure these Amazonian-sourced products demand.
Many Amazonian fruits spoil much too quickly to be exported whole and processing plants, which often cause their own pollution issues, have begun to pop up throughout the Amazon.
Next is the matter of shipping the raw materials out. The Amazon River, wide and mighty, easily allows for the passage of large cargo ships from the ocean deep into the jungle. These cargo ships will be filled with superfoods bound for North America and Europe but the real issue is what the ships bring to the Amazon.
Profits for multinational shipping companies rely on cargo ships rarely being left empty. While there are plenty of products to haul out of the Amazon, sending empty ships up the Amazon is simply bad business.
Instead, these ships coming to collect the nutrient packed superfoods of the jungle, arrive filled with imported junk foods. Huge marketing campaigns sell the sugar and fat filled treats to even the most remote Amazonian villages and give the shipping companies their two way profit machine.
Instead of losing money on empty shipping containers, companies have a new market for their junk and valuable exports with huge markup potential.
The trade has literally become superfoods for junk foods and the health of both the Amazonian people and the jungle has begun to suffer.
As demand and prices rise on Amazonian products, native people see more benefit in selling their harvests rather than eating them. To fill out their diets, they enjoy the calorie dense junk food of the importers. Many of these products are even marketed in such a way as to imply they are the true “luxury” products.
How ironic, considering the way Amazonian “superfoods” are in turn marketed in our own supermarkets.
Health issues, from dental issues to high blood pressure and diabetes have begun to appear throughout the Amazon.
And let us not forget the environment health issues caused by all the plastic trash generated by these industrialized, packaged junk foods. While plenty of chip bags and soda bottles can find their way deep into the Amazon, little to no infrastructure exists to remove or process non-composting trash.
These are all issues to consider the next time you order an acai bowl or pick up some brazil nuts at your local grocery store.
What effect are your “healthy” purchases having on the lives and health of the people at the other end of that production line?
There are plenty of responsible and ethical companies to support, those working with local communities in the Amazon to not just export superfoods but to in return support the communities with education, health, and economic programs.
Native Amazonian tribes are the ones preserving and sharing their valuable knowledge, their seemingly miracle jungle cures, and their healthy superfoods. Let us respect and support them, not just toss them our own junk foods and unhealthy habits.