African mango has received a great deal of buzz in the last few years as a dietary supplement. It goes by many names: wild mango, bush mango, dika, and ogbono.
On the surface, the African mango looks similar to a true mango, with colorful fruit that’s green or yellow at maturity. Both are fleshy stone fruits, and have an analagous taste and texture.
However, the African mango (Irvingia gabonensis) is actually a different species of tree native to lowland western and west-central Africa, from Nigeria to Congo. It can grow up to 130 feet tall and five feet in diameter. A true mango (Mangifera indica) is native to southern Asia, and is the largest fruit tree in the world. It can reach a circumference of fourteen feet.
African mango generally prefers well-drained, acidic soils and thrives in warm, tropical climates. They have greyish, scaly bark with dense canopies of leaves. They are most often found in the wild near riverbanks in humid areas.
African Mango's Cultivation by Elephants
While common mangos are often cultivated, African mango is often propagated by transplanting seedlings found in the wild in Cameroon.
Many seeds happily germinate in elephant dung, and elephants are an important part of the life cycle of these trees. Elephants are more responsible for the dispersal of Irvingia seeds than any other animal species. African mangoes are a favorite snack of the elephants, and a fruit-loving elephant with a sweet tooth can easily pluck the fruits from these trees.
As the seeds are large, elephants are the only megafauna that can fully ingest them. Dung is a wonderful starting medium for the tough seeds, who have survived a trip through a very large intestine. As elephant populations decline, populations of the Irvingia tree suffer in terms of quantity and geographic distribution.
The wood of the Irvingia tree is also used as timber. In contrast, a true mango is rarely used for lumber. The wood of common mangoes growing in India is susceptible to fungus and insect infestation, and is typically only harvested after the tree’s fruit-bearing days are finished. The African mango is very pest-resistant and can be used for heavy construction materials in buildings and ships, as well as for use as railroad ties.
Depending on where it’s grown, African mango fruit can be directly harvested from the wild, or the trees can be cultivated in farms that also produce cocoa and coffee to provide shade for these other crops. The fruit can be harvested in the rainy season, from July to September. In many places in Cameroon, half of the seeds of the mango fruit are traded, and half are kept as a local foodstuff. Cameroon is the largest exporter of African mangoes.
Culinary Uses Of African Mango
When humans harvest the African mango in the rainy season, the flesh of the fruit is often eaten fresh. The juicy pulp has a spicy, earthy taste. Some experimentation has occurred with using the flesh to make wine.
The sugar content of the African mango is comparable to wine grapes, and the fruit ferments well. Attempts to make wine with the African mango have produced a wine that compares acceptably to standard table wine in terms of color, taste, and sweetness.
After the African mango is picked, the fruit is split by a knife to reveal the single seed within, which is full of kernels. The kernels are rich in fatty acids, polysaccharides, and protein. The kernels can typically be dried and preserved for less than a year, owing to the humid rain-forest environment.
A common way of drying the nuts is using a bamboo rack over a fireplace. The kernels can be roasted and ground into a somewhat-slimy condiment paste that’s high in nutrients and trace minerals. This paste is frequently used as a thickening agent for soups.
One interesting local tradition in southern and eastern Cameroon involves making a mango cake wrapped in leaves. The kernels are roasted and ground into a paste, then molded into a cake tin. The cake may be called “Etima” or “Dika bread.” The mixture is left to dry, removed from the tin, and wrapped with leaves. It may then be further refined by grating the cake into flour.
The uses of the African mango are not limited to cake and wine. Parts of the tree are used as lumber, oil, materials for soap-making, cattle feed, jellies and jams, juice, medicine, and even as a black dye for clothing.
More current research concerning the oils of the nut suggest that it might make a suitable substitute for margarine. The African mango is an important source of food and supplies for human life in its indigenous areas, and its success is largely owed to the sweet tooth of elephants.
African Mango Health Benefits
In traditional African medicine, African mango has been utilized as a treatment for a wide array of disorders including: diabetes, dysentery, bleeding, liver problems, and as an antimicrobial and analgesic .
Few of the claims surrounding the benefits of African mango have been thoroughly tested, and most of the studies that have been conducted involve claims involving weight and metabolism.
African mango seed has gained some popularity as a weight loss supplement in the U.S. in recent years, though the chemical composition of the seeds has rarely been analyzed .
In a study using high-performance liquid chromatography and high resolution mass spectrometry, Ellagic acid, monomethyl-ellagic acid, dimethyl-ellagic acid, trimethyl-ellagic acid and their glycosides were found to be major chemical components in African Mango seeds.
Some small studies have found potential for African Mango as a dietary supplement. A double-blind randomized study of 40 participants found that participants who took Irvingia gabonensis experienced a statistically-significant decrease in body weight,total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, and triglycerides . Subjects also demonstrated an increase in HDL-cholesterol.
Similar effects were also found in study of a preparation combining Veldt grape and African Mango . This double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study included 72 obese or overweight subjects. Participants who received the preparation showed statistically-significant improvements in body weight, body fat, waist size, LDL cholesterol, total plasma cholesterol, and fasting blood glucose level.
Another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 48 overweight subjects found some weight reduction among subjects who took Irvingia gabonensis, but the weight loss was not observed for several weeks. Testing showed some improvements in lipid measurements for this test group .
Another double blind randomized placebo controlled clinical trial of 102 healthy subjects showed some promise for weight reduction . In this study, subjects were given a proprietary extract of the African mango seed. Some favorable effects on body weight and metabolic parameters were found.
A systematic literature review incorporating several medicinal plants with purported anti-obesity properties noted that while African mango showed some effects on obesity in some studies, it was not as effective as many other studied plants . However, a later laboratory study of rats showed that high levels of consumption of African mango seeds caused both an increase in HDL cholesterol and a rise in triglyceride accumulation. .
Another study in diabetic rats showed that administering extracts of African mango leaves and bark had mixed results on blood sugar levels and weight. Some rats receiving aqueous extracts of mango leaves gained weight, while others showed improvement in blood sugar levels, but the potential toxicity of the mango extracts came into question .
Dried African mango seeds have also been evaluated for antimicrobial effects. A laboratory study found that the seeds had very little antibacterial effect, but might have some antifungal effects against certain fungi in some circumstances .
The studies conducted so far have not explored all the traditional uses of African mango. In the limited areas in which research has been conducted, some areas of promise have emerged. Future research is needed to replicate smaller studies on larger scales and to evaluate potential toxicity levels in human populations.
Meanwhile, African mango will be continued to be enjoyed as a source of culinary, building, and household materials. The versatile tree is the backbone of many local economies where it grows, and its importance as a natural resource is likely to continue to expand.
Janick J, Paull R, Eds. 2008. The Encyclopedia of Fruits and Nuts. CABI: Oxfordshire, UK.
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