About 170 years ago a British Dr William Freeman Daniel introduced this remarkable plant, long used by West African native inhabitants, to the world of science.
Dr Daniel was a Botanist and an Army surgeon from Manchester. Like all British Army Surgeons treating the troops in equatorial Africa Dr Daniel used native medicinal remedies to treat tropical diseases for which western medicine at that time had no effective cures. Dr Daniel therefore paid particular attention to medicinal and economic plants he came across during his work and travels in West Africa.
T.D. had been brought to his attention but it was only when he was in ‘Old Calabar’ South Soudan in 1841 he finally discovered the ‘extraordinary power on the palate’ as he puts it, ‘of this remarkable plant’. It was at this time he reported the fruits in a pharmaceutical journal.
Later in 1853 Dr Daniel again came across T.D. in Sierra Leone. He writes that he noticed the natives carried on a considerable trade with ‘Katemfe’ (the Nigerian name for T.d.) He then described it as the MIRACULOUS FRUIT OF SOUDAN. (Not to be confused with Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii or serendipity berry sometimes referred to as the ‘miracle fruit’ it having the sweet substance know as monillin)
The traditional uses for T.d. were to sweeten breads made of corn, to make palm wine palatable, to sweeten sour fruits and it was even used by lactating mothers to rub on their nipples to encourage their babies to breast feed.
Dr Daniel remarked that it was sold in colonial markets at the ‘moderate’ price of one half penny per ‘capsule’ or fruit. According to our calculations that would be about 50 pence per kilogram of T.d. about 170 years ago!
Today the average price is about 13 pence per kilogram of ‘collected’ fruit from its wild natural habitat in the mainly secondary forest region of Ivory Coast.
It was Dr Daniel’s friend JJ Bennet who gave the first description of T.d. in 1854 however it was later re-classified by Bentham in ‘Flora of West Tropical Africa’ by Hutchison and Dalziel. As Thauatoccocus daniellii.
The development of T.d from a scientific curiosity into an economic plant exploited in its natural environment
In the early 70’s a British company Tate and Lyle joined the search for alternatives to calorie rich carbohydrate sweeteners like sucrose. When there were fears over safety of certain artificial sweeteners Tate and Lyle ‘Specialty Sweeteners’ division began investigating ‘natural sweet substances’. In 1972 the Tate and Lyle ‘Sweetener’ project was initiated in Ghana in West Africa and at the same time Van de Walls et al had isolated the ‘sweet fraction’ a protein. (Its structure was only finally determined in 1979.)
As far as it is know it is the sweetest natural substance.
Tate and Lyle selected two of the most promising plants for investigation. Finally the sweet aril gel of T.d. was selected because of its colour, solubility, stability, ease of extraction, yield, lack of bitter substances and effectiveness as a sweetener.
Trials were set up at Bunso in Ghana to collect data on the distribution, horticulture, life cycle, extraction of the sweet gel, harvest and transport of the fruit. At the about the same time contact was taken up with the French Research Institute Orstom in the Ivory Coast and a team was sent to investigate the presence of T.d. there.
In the late 70’s it was finally realised that thaumatin was not suitable as a sweetener in its own right-it was simply too sweet-2000 to 3000 times the sweetness of sucrose at a 6-10 % sucrose sweetness range, an initial delay in the sweetness perception (linked to the high mol. Wt of the thaumatin proteins) and a slight liquorice after-taste resulted in the wrong sweetness profile for an ideal sweetener. . It was decided to shelve the project.
Graph of sweetness profiles No 2
September 04, 2017
Then in 1980 ‘Like a Phoenix arising from the ashes’ a new role was discovered for Thaumatin, It was discovered that Thaumatin has a formidable ability in very low inclusion rates to modify and enhance other flavours e.g. mint flavour therefore allowing the concentrations of such flavours to be lowered. It can mask bitter and metallic notes of artificial sweeteners or natural sweeteners like Stevia. In animal feeds it encourages consumption without the destructive physiological effects of adding sucrose to give the same effects. When added to water for weaning piglets they wean more easily.
Therefore in 1981 an attempt was made to resurrect the T.d. project in Ghana but by then a coup d’Etat had taken place resulting in political instability and unfortunately two years later devastating fires ruined the natural habitat of T.d. Encroaching agriculture, widespread use of the stems for mats and leaves for food wrappers all added to the difficulty to obtain economic quantities of the fruit for export from Ghana. It was therefore decided to turn to the Ivory Coast for T.d supplies.
September 05, 2017
When fruit collection in Ivory Coast began in 1981 Fruit was plentiful but again methods of collection by the peasants were found to be unsustainable and destructive and if Ivory Coast was to become the main suppliers more sustainable methods would have to be found. Peasants in their eagerness to harvest the fruit were cutting back the leaves (it takes up to 2 years for T.d. to regenerate and fruit again) and trampling on the plant and destroying the fragile flowers.
Tate and Lyle employed consultants to study the situation. It was decided the only solution would be if the villagers had a direct stake in the operation and instead of fruit being collected in the villages and taken to a central processing station in Abidjan stations would be established in strategic places all around the country. The farmer’s families would be involved in the processing of the fruit and so gain in financial benefits and at the same time it would be worth their while to protect the plant and the plant’s habitat. This would hopefully mean that secondary forest in the fruit buying areas of Ivory Coast were less likely to be destroyed.
From 1982 to 1989 many difficulties were encountered by operatives working for Tate and Lyle in the Ivory Coast and a reliable supply of good quality arils was never achieved. This resulted in the establishment of a position for an Aril supply manger. This is the point we come into the equation!
September 06, 2017
In 1989 James Sweetman joined the operation in the Ivory Coast as T.d Supply Manager. Over the following 20 years James was very much involved in improving sustainable harvesting methods, setting standards for quality control, improving processing and export methods as well as helping to establish a fully legal functioning local company , which has worked successfully in partnership with each successive Company since Tate and Lyle sold their interest in 1993.
It has changed hands 5 times and each time we were ‘passed’ on as well (Maybe it is all in our surname!) It is currently owned by a French company Naturex. For us as a family this little red fruit has been a ‘God-send’. We have much to thank it for as do the 6000 villagers who have collected and cut the fruit and the numerous workers and managers most of whom who have been with us for the last 20 years. We have seen them married and have children whom they have been able to send to school and college.