Where do Brazil nuts come from?

Brazil nuts are the nutlets of a large canopy tree, Bertholletia exclesa found throughout much of the Amazon. These familiar seeds are all harvested from wild trees growing deep in the pristine forest and represent the major source of income for the communities who harvest them.

Brazil Nuts can be found in most supermarkets in Britain, in nut mixes, covered in chocolate, or as a traditional Christmas treat. Probably not so familiar is what kind of tree produces the nut or the extrordinary journey the nuts make before arriving in our supermarkets. Most of the Brazil Nuts in the UK are actually harvested in the Bolivian and not the Brazilian Amazon. The segment-lik nuts that we see are the seeds of a much larger and remarkable fruit produced by a towering canopy tree whose scientific name is Bertholettia excelsa.

Brazil nut fruit, one with the top cut away to show the dozen or more familiar nuts inside. Fruits way upwards of 500g and fall to the ground from a height of 30-40 m, being hit by a falling fruit can be fatal! Image courtesy of Rainforest Crunch.

The tree grows to 45 m and is a canopy emergent, its flowers are pollinated by tropical bees that only live in the Amazon Rain Forest and who, for their own reproduction, depend on an orchid, Coryanthes vasquezii. It is the dependence by the pollinator on this orchid, which grows high up in the canopy but  not on Brazil Nut trees which has made attempts to grow Brazil Nuts in plantations almost impossible.

Eulaema mocsaryi visiting a Brazil Nut flower, this is one of only two species of bee known to pollinate them. The male bee needs scented oil from an orchid to attract a female, making the pollination of Brazil Nuts very complicated. Image courtesy of Cavalcante et al. 2012

It is this reproductive triangle that has ensured that the Brazil Nuts we buy are harvested from wild trees growing in intact tropical rain forest. And in turn it is our willingness to buy these relatively expensive nuts that has protected significant parts of the Amazon in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru as the Brazil Nut trees they contain represent a regular and significant income to many of the rural communities nearby. In Bolivia Brazil Nut trees are protected by law and a day’s harvest can generate up to $150 making harvesting the main income for rural people in the area.

Brazil nuts being screened by hand inside the Tahuamanu SA cracking factory in Cobija, Bolivia. Nuts are dried, steamed, shelled and then exhaustively screened and graded before being shipped to the UK. This factory supplies nuts consumed in the UK. Click on the image to see a clip of the nuts being cracked

The nuts are harvested between December and March, the wet season, and during this time many people camp in the forest following well established trails that lead from one tree to another. The fruits are cut open with a machete in the forest and the seeds placed into sacks which then need to be taken out on foot to the nearest road or river. Here they are bought by merchants who then transport and sell them to a cracking factory.  At the factory the nuts are dried in a three-stage process before being sterilised using steam in a giant autoclave. Once sterile, the nuts are then cracked in a giant machine that you wouldn’t want to fall into and the shelled kernel is then subject to several manual screenings, two of which take place under ultraviolet light in which damaged, rotten or fungus infected nuts are discarded. The result is pristine nuts vacume packed and shipped to the UK.

Brazil nut kernels being screened under UV light. The effort and capacity that the factory has to ensure the highest level of hygeine was truly impressive. Clickon the image to see the nuts being screened under UV



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