Call to Earth is a CNN initiative in partnership with Rolex. Laury Cullen is a Rolex Awards Laureate.
(CNN)Small, round, and midnight blue, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the juçara berry for its superfood cousin, the açaí berry, or even the humble blueberry.
But the juçara berry, which grows on a palm tree of the same name, is offering a lot more than antioxidants — it’s helping to restore Brazil’s devastated Atlantic Forest. A lush tropical forest that stretched more than 2,500 miles along Brazil’s coastline, and inland to Paraguay and Argentina, the Atlantic Forest once covered 12% of Brazil’s land area. But in the 16th century, Portuguese colonizers began replacing forest with sugar cane, and later, coffee plantations. Since then, agriculture and urban expansion have accelerated deforestation and today, just 7% of the original forest remains.The juçara palm is threatened not only by deforestation, but also by its own tastiness. The tree’s palm heart — a soft fruit in the trunk — is a nutritious delicacy. Most palms can regrow from their shoots but the juçara cannot, so when the palm heart is removed, the tree dies. Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsHigh in energy-dense fatty acids and antioxidants in the form of polyphenols, the juçara berry is the latest tasty treat to be branded a superfood. Click through the gallery to see more health-boosting superfoods.Hide Caption 1 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsHigh in “good” fat and low in carbs, avocados have been linked to improved cardiovascular health through boosting “good” cholesterol and reducing “bad” cholesterol. Avocados have a whole host of other health benefits, too: high in folate, vitamin K, and vitamin C, they also contain more potassium than bananas.Hide Caption 2 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsDespite containing just 30 calories per cup, broccoli is one of the most nutrient-dense foods. That means plenty of filling fiber and polyphenols — antioxidants that detoxify cell-damaging chemicals in your body — with each serving. Hide Caption 3 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsThe old adage goes “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” — and with studies showing a link between apples and lowered risk of chronic disease, it seems there might be some truth to it. A great source of antioxidants, fiber, vitamin C and potassium, apples have also been shown to reduce “bad” LDL cholesterols.Hide Caption 4 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsBlueberries are often singled out as a superfood because studies have shown they aid in everything from fighting cancer to lowering cholesterol. But all berries, including raspberries, strawberries and blackberries, contain antioxidants and phytonutrients. Worried about the price of fresh fruit? Experts say frozen berries are just as “super.” Hide Caption 5 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsThe fruit of a palm tree, açaí berries are high in fiber and loaded with antioxidants including polyphenols and anthocyanins. Their high fat content makes them super energizing, and they are popular as a pre- and post-workout snack. Açaí berries have a short shelf-life when fresh, so are most often consumed dried or as a frozen puree.Hide Caption 6 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsA good source of lean protein, salmon provides a high dose of omega-3 fatty acids, which studies suggest are beneficial for heart health because they reduce inflammation and slow the rate of plaque buildup in blood vessels.Hide Caption 7 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsIn the past, eggs have been vilified for their high levels of dietary cholesterol. However, research has shown that this doesn’t raise blood cholesterol. In fact, studies have shown that adults who eat an egg a day have lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to those who rarely eat them. Plus, eggs are full of choline, a nutrient that helps block fat from being absorbed in the liver, and has been linked to preventing memory loss. Hide Caption 8 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsMany dieters shy away from nuts because of their high calorie and fat count, but eating a handful several times a week can help shed pounds and prevent heart disease. Almonds, in particular, contain lots of monounsaturated fats and fiber — try replacing peanut butter with almond butter for a healthy swap.Hide Caption 9 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsStaying hydrated is vital for good health, and if you choose to drink green tea, you’ll also be increasing your metabolism, which will burn more fat. Plus, the antioxidants found in green tea have been linked to cancer prevention.Hide Caption 10 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsQuinoa has been a trendy superfood for a while, with good reason. The popular whole-grain contains a good dose of protein to help build muscle. As an added bonus for those watching their weight, including any type of whole grain in your diet — from barley to brown rice — will help fill you up for fewer calories. Hide Caption 11 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsBlack, kidney, white and garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) all end up on superfood lists because of their high fiber and protein. They fill you up and provide muscle-building material without any of the fat that meat can add to your meal. Hide Caption 12 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsSpinach is a great source of iron, which is a key component in the red blood cells that carry oxygen to our muscles. But researchers in Sweden identified another way in which these greens might keep you charged: Compounds found in spinach actually increase the efficiency of our mitochondria, the energy-producing factories inside our cells. That means eating a cup of cooked spinach a day may give you more lasting power for your workout.Hide Caption 13 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsWalnuts are packed with tryptophan, an amino acid your body needs to create the feel-great chemical serotonin. Another perk: “They’re digested slowly,” says Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center. “This contributes to mood stability and can help you tolerate stress.”Hide Caption 14 of 15 Photos: Fill your plate with superfoodsAsparagus is one of the best veggie sources of folate, a B vitamin that could help keep you out of a mental slump. “Folate is important for the synthesis of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine,” says Dr. David Mischoulon, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. All of these are crucial for mood.Hide Caption 15 of 15Historically, indigenous communities used the tree for food and timber, but small-scale harvesting of this slow-growing palm didn’t threaten its survival. That changed in the 1960s when commercial exploitation caused rapid decline and the tree became endangered. Read MoreGrowing demand for juçara heart of palm led to the tree becoming extinct in parts of the Atlantic Forest.Now, a Brazil-based startup says it has found a solution. Juçaí harvests the tree’s berries, rather than its palm hearts, so the tree can remain standing — producing fruit every year and helping the forest to flourish. Founded in 2015, Juçaí works with a network of local farmers and buys juçara berries for its products, including smoothies and sorbets, says Bruno Corrêa, the company’s general manager.”The idea from the start was to build a range of products that was not only good quality and nutritious, but also that created a positive, virtuous circle to preserve the tree,” he says. Farming can help save the forestThe Atlantic Forest is protected by law, says Rafael Bitante, forest restoration manager for the SOS Mata Atlântica, a non-governmental organization that supports reforestation initiatives. However, weak enforcement has led to illegal exploitation of the juçara palm, he says. That’s where Juçaí comes in. Through farming cooperatives, the company works with nearly 900 families in Espirito Santo State, and its reach is extending south into Parana State. Farmers plant new trees, or nurture existing ones, while Juçaí oversees logistics and provides the equipment needed to turn the berries into pulp and separate out the seeds — which are then planted. The Atlantic Forest is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, with more than 20,000 plant species.Illegal cutting in the forest is still an issue, but harvesting berries offers a comparable income and is a “clear and straightforward” option for farmers, says Corrêa. The tree’s economic value incentivizes farmers to preserve it, he says, and that benefits the whole ecosystem. “The tree is important not only in terms of forest coverage and how it protects the soil but also for the fauna, especially birds,” he says, adding that farmers leave a third of the berries on the tree during each harvest, to support wildlife.Growing up wild: This photographer captures the beauty of Mexico's mountains Others have also seen the value of the living tree. Açaí Barbacuá, a family-run business, and EcoNativa, an organic farming cooperative, have created networks for local famers to harvest and sell juçara berry pulp.These juçara projects are a form of “agroforestry.” This approach to land management mixes nature and agriculture, by establishing farms on forest fringes and planting crop-yielding trees on farms and in gardens, says Laury Cullen, a forest engineer with Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas, an environmental research organization in Brazil.Combined with reforested “corridors,” agroforestry zones can provide “stepping-stones” that help wildlife like butterflies and birds move between fragmented sections of the remaining forest, says Cullen.Agroforestry also benefits communities, says Cullen. In Sao Paulo State, where he works, farmers grow coffee trees beneath the shade of the forest canopy. According to Cullen, biodiversity and canopy coverage have increased, while farmers’ incomes have grown by 26%.More than 1,000 species of birds live in the Atlantic Forest. Many, like this spot-billed toucanet, feed on juçara berries.Bitante says the type of sustainable farming Juçaí promotes benefits the environment and the economy. “It is essential to strengthen the link between the maintenance of biodiversity and society, valuing the standing forest and guaranteeing the protection of this beautiful biome.”Berry nutritiousJuçaí hopes that creating a strong market for the juçara berry can help build a better future for the farmers and, in turn, the forest. Just like the açai berry, the superfood is finding a fan base among the wellness crowd, says Corrêa. Juçara berries are high in energy-dense fatty acids and packed with antioxidants in the form of polyphenols, known for promoting heart health. A 2020 study on the effect of juçara and açai consumption in healthy adults found that after four weeks, levels of antioxidant enzymes and “good” cholesterol increased. Juçaí uses the berry seeds from pulp production to plant new juçara seedlings.Certified organic and vegan, Juçaí currently sells its products in both supermarkets and specialized health food stores in Brazil, Chile and Canada, and hopes to expand into other markets. “People are increasingly aware of what they eat, both from a nutrition perspective as well from a sustainable one,” says Corrêa.Since its launch, Juçaí has been responsible for keeping around 31,000 juçara palm trees standing, Corrêa says. For Juçaí, preserving the Atlantic Forest and its biodiversity is what drives the business.”Juçara is the iconic tree of the Atlantic Forest,” he says. “The product only exists because of that sustainability mission.”
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