Brazil’s other edible seeds

There is a tremendous diversity of food in South America, and in particular, Brazil. One can find a wide variety of edible seeds and nuts of all sorts growing all over the country. In fact, two of them are popular all over the world! Can you guess?

  • Brazil nuts

Ok, this is a given, but these nuts are actually native to a big part of South America. How do you call Brazil nuts in Brazil? “Pará” nuts, a Northern Brazilian state which was once the world’s largest producer of them. However, Bolivia took over as the largest producer of Brazil nuts decades ago.

Brazil Nut Pod

Brazil nut fruits

The species is actually a relative of cranberries and blueberries and can live up to 500 years. The fruits are hard and resemble a coconut, with 8 to 24 seeds inside.

It was first made popular by the English in the 1700s, and then by Americans in the early 1900s. In contrast to their popularity, there are very few farms of  Brazil nuts; they are mostly wildcrafted, as the trees depend on native pollinators, which in turn can only be found in the Amazon rainforest.

In fact, the tree co-evolved with a number of different pollinator insects for its flowers, and a few mammals for the spreading of its seeds, such as the agouti and certain monkeys.


Agouti opening Brazil Nut fruit through its “back” hole

Deforestation threatens Brazil nut trees, just like baru trees. This is because the Brazil nut tree cannot be easily cultivated and requires proximity to a pristine rainforest to be pollinated, otherwise, it will not bear fruits.

The extraction of Brazil nuts protects the Amazon rainforest biodiversity by generating revenue for a number of local foraging communities, which encourages the preservation of their environment.

  • Cashew nuts

This might come as a shock to most people, as they are incredibly popular in India. Did you know this species originated in Northeastern Brazil?

The Portuguese, in the 1500s, went to Brazil and eventually brought cashew seeds to former colonies Goa and Mozambique. To control coastal erosion, they planted cashew trees. The story goes that in India wild elephants took a liking for the fruits. This, in turn, spread cashew seeds over a large territory, making the tree widespread in the country.

However, the first plantations were established only in the 1800s, and nowadays India and Côte d’Ivoire are the largest global exporters of cashew nuts, with a staggering 46% of the world’s production.

Native cashew varieties still inhabit the Brazilian Cerrado, along with baru trees and many other wild species adapted to the dry climate.


Wild cashews growing in the Cerrado

Curious fact: several cultures around the world are not familiar with the cashew “apple”. It has a sweet, astringent flavour and can be eaten casually, or used in jellies, juices and beverages. Also, it is related to the mango tree!


Direto da Amazônia, livro revela como a castanha-do-pará ganhou o mundo. Jornal da USP, 2017. 

PANDA, H. The Complete Book on Cashew (Cultivation, Processing & By-Products). 2013.

DENKE, J. S. The Carrot Purple and Other Curious Stories of the Food We Eat. 2015.