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African Custard Apples: Potential Relief in Food Emergencies

Agriculturalists say a number of Africa’s indigenous but not widely researched plants can help improve nutrition and serve as alternative food sources in times of drought. One family of those plants is known as the custard apple [Annonaceae]. It includes a number of species, such as the junglesop and the groundsop. Another species of the custard apple is the African custard apple [Annona senegalensis].

The bush is known in villages from west to southern Africa. It produces yellow-orange fruits that are said to be similar in taste to apricots but smell like pineapples. The fruit is high in calories and in vitamin C, iron and potassium

Adi Damania, a genetic resource scientist in the Department of Plant Science at the University of California (at Davis) says a version of the plant (Annona squamosa) also grows in Latin America and in India. The British colonizers gave named it. According to Damania, "when you open the fruit, you don’t cut it, you press it open, pull it apart. When you see inside, it looks like custard before you plunge your spoon inside."

He says those large black seeds, which must be spit out, make it difficult to market the fruit. Indian scientists have tried to develop a version with smaller seeds, but so far, the result is a fruit that doesn’t taste good.

Nevertheless, he says the custard apple remains a popular fruit in part of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

"Its best use in recent years," he says, "has been in the making of ice cream (from its white pulp). Custard apple ice cream is a flavor in Indiaand tropical countries. It tastes wonderful. It has the same texture as a vanilla ice cream but with the tasted of custard."

Besides its use as an ice cream or pudding, African custard apple is often mixed with weaning foods for infants. The pulp is also used in making fermented drinks.

The custard apple tree is often found in sandy and loamy soils throughout much of tropical Africa but can tolerate some of the cold of parts of subtropical South Africa. According to the US National Research Council, which includes the tree in its series of publications called Lost Crops of Africa, the custard apple grows best in warm and fairly moist conditions, especially in mixed woodlands and open savannas.

Food scientists say with research, the custard apple could be planted more extensively and become a more common staple in local and city markets. They say it could also be bred with it some of its relatives in Brazil and other parts of the Americas to produce varieties with smaller seeds and with drought resistance. Also, the African custard apple tends to be resistant to some of fungal diseases that affect its American cousins. Cross-breeding the two could create higher yielding and tastier fruit that are immune to bacterial and fungal diseases.

Scientists are also looking into of medicinal uses of the African custard apple: in Swaziland, the bark is used to treat open sores, and some members of the African custard apple family are known to repel insects.

The African variety is not as familiar to many people as the other species. That could change, say scientists, if cross-breeding varieties is successful.