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.
The flowers are unisexual and fragrant. They have five petals, are
greenish-white and bloom during warm months. The fruit is
pear-shaped. When it ripens, it turns from green to a bright red to
yellow-orange, and splits open to reveal three large, shiny black
seeds, surrounded by soft, creamy or spongy, white to yellow flesh—arilli.
The fruit typically weighs 100–200 grams.
The scientific name honours Captain William Bligh who took the
fruit from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England in
1793 and introduced it to science. The common name is derived from
the West African Akye fufo. The term ackee originated from the Twi
language.The fruit was imported to Jamaica from West Africa
(probably on a slave ship) before 1778.Since then it has become a
major feature of various Caribbean cuisines, and is also cultivated
in tropical and subtropical areas elsewhere around the world.
Cultivation and uses
Ackee and saltfish, a traditional Jamaican dish
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
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.
Preparing ackees for consumption
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.
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
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.