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The ackee controversy - fact and fiction

Published:Tuesday | October 9, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Ackees freshly picked.
Ackee and salt fish
Prostate and cancer

THE BOTANICAL name of Jamaica's national fruit, the ackee is Blighia sapida.

According to Wikipedia, this scientific name honours Captain William Bligh, a famous English sailor who took the fruit from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England in 1793, where it was introduced to science.

It is originally from West Africa and is related to the lychee fruit. The common name is derived from the West African name, Akye fufo.

Although very popular and widely used, many misconceptions and fictions still surround the consumption of this fruit.


Serving size 3.5 oz. (100g canned/drained)

Calories 151

Total fat 15.2g

Saturated Fat 0g

Cholesterol 0g

Total carbohydrates 2.7g

Dietary fibre 0.8g

Protein 2.9 g

Per cent of calories from:

Fat 90.2%

Carbs 2.1%

Protein 7.7%

Also contains vitamins A, C, B2, B3, folic acid, calcium, potassium, sodium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc.

Source, Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute

Good or bad fat?

Ackee is a high-fat food and a common misconception about it is that ackee contains lot of cholesterol and unhealthy fats. This is absolutely erroneous.

Research from the Department of Biochemistry, University of the West Indies, Mona, found 51 to 58 per cent of the dry weight of ackee was lipid (fat), with linoleic, palmitic and stearic acids, very healthy fats, being the major fatty acids present.

According to The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), ackee is a good source of these beneficial fats and provides an excellent source of fatty acids in the traditional Jamaican diet.

I again remind readers of a basic fact: cholesterol is found only in foods of animal origin, as plants do not make this substance. There is, therefore, no cholesterol at all in ackees or, for that matter, in avocados, coconuts, peanuts or cashews.

Ackee poisoning

The consumption of the unripe ackee fruit can create a condition known in Jamaica as ackee poisoning. This problem was first noted in 1875 and documented in 1904 when doctors labelled it the 'Jamaican vomiting sickness'. Substances in the under-ripe pods (and the ackee seeds) cause severe vomiting that can lead to convulsions, coma and death. PAHO confirms what Jamaican researchers had identified: that two amino acids hypoglycin A and hypoglycin B cause the fruit to be toxic.

They were given these names because of their ability to cause hypoglycemia - a severe lowering of blood-sugar levels. The hypoglycin content rapidly diminishes after sunlight reaches the mature open pods. Before effective treatments were developed, the mortality rate for ackee poisoning was as high as 80 per cent. In Jamaica today, with increased awareness and prompt treatment, deaths are infrequent. Only six deaths were reported here from 1989 to 1991.

Ackee and the prostate

There is a belief being circulated that eating ackee is bad for the prostate. Some even suggest that it may cause prostate cancer. I have found no evidence to support this view. Yes, the research has reported that a diet high in saturated animal fats will increase your risk of prostate cancer. But ackee is rich in healthy plant fats that do not increase one's risk of prostate disease. Similarly, ackee consumption does not increase one's risk of heart disease or cause an elevation in blood cholesterol.

Ackee is versatile

Although ackee is best known as part of the famous ackee and salt fish dish, it can be enjoyed in many ways. In the book Cooking with Ackee by Dean Burrowes, cooking instructor Jassie Singh shared dozens of different ways that ackee can be prepared and enjoyed. The variety of ackee dishes described is both amazing and mouth-watering. How about ackee with peas and veggie chunks or ackee and broccoli soufflé?

The bottom line is - yes, ackee is a high-fat food, but those fats are healthy and not associated with disease. Go ahead, enjoy our national dish.

You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book 'An Ounce of Prevention, Especially for Women' is available locally and on the Internet.