The fruit of the ackee is not edible in its entirety. Only the inner, fleshy yellow arils are consumed. Ackees must be harvested, prepared and cooked properly. Ackee pods should be allowed to ripen and open naturally on the tree before picking. Prior to cooking, the ackee arils must be cleaned and washed. The arils are then boiled for approximately 30 minutes and the water discarded. Raw ackees and the inner red tissue of the ripe ackee arils contain potent alkaloid toxins (hypoglycins A and B) which can produce a syndrome of vomiting, seizures, and fatal hypoglycemia known as Jamaican vomiting sickness. Though it may be poisonous when improperly prepared, ackee has high nutritional value and is rich in essential fatty acids, vitamin A, zinc, and protein.
The ackee fruit is canned and is a major export product in Jamaica. In 2005 the ackee industry was valued at $400 million in the island. The importing of canned ackee into the U.S. has at times been restricted due to unripe ackee arilli being included. However, it is currently allowed, provided that the amount of hypoglycin present meets the standards of the Food and Drug Administration. In 2005 the first commercial shipments of canned ackee from Haiti were approved by the US-FDA for shipment to the US market.
A canning plant in Port-au-Prince, Haiti is supplied with fruit from three commercial orchards on the outskirts of the city.
Biochemistry of ackee poisoning
The unripened or inedible portions of the fruit contain the toxins hypoglycin A and hypoglycin B. Hypoglycin A is found in both the seeds and the arils, while hypoglycin B is found only in the seeds. Hypoglycin is converted in the body to methylenecyclopropyl acetic acid (MCPA). Hypoglycin and MCPA are both toxic. MCPA inhibits several enzymes involved in the breakdown of acyl CoA compounds. Hypoglycin binds irreversibly to coenzyme A, carnitine and carnitine acyltransferases I and II reducing their bioavailability and consequently inhibiting beta oxidation of fatty acids. Beta oxidation normally provides the body with ATP, NADH, and acetyl CoA which is used to supplement the energy produced by glycolysis. Glucose stores are consequently depleted leading to hypoglycemia. Clinically, this presentation is called Jamaican vomiting sickness.
Although native to West Africa, consumption of ackee for food takes place mainly in Jamaican cuisine. Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica, and ackee and saltfish is the national dish.
Ackee was first introduced to Jamaica and later to Haiti, Cuba, Bali, Barbados and others. It was later introduced to Florida in the United States.
The oil of the ackee arils contains many important nutrients, especially fatty acids. Linoleic, palmitic and stearic acids are the primary fatty acids found in the fruit. Ackee oil makes an important contribution to the diet of many Jamaicans.
The dried seeds, fruit bark and leaves are used medicinally. The fruit is used to produce soap in some parts of Africa. It is also used as a fish poison.
The Ackee, Vegetable Brain, Achee, Akee Apple or Akee (Blighia sapida) is a member of the Sapindaceae (soapberry family), native to tropical West Africa in Cameroon, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
It is related to the lychee and the longan, and is an evergreen tree that grows about 10 metres tall, with a short trunk and a dense crown. The leaves are pinnate, leathery, compound, 15–30 centimetres long, with 6–10 elliptical obovate-oblong leaflets. Each leaflet is 8–12 centimetres long and 5–8 centimetres broad.