13 Products & Foods From The Rainforest That May Surprise You
The foods you eat and the products you use all come from somewhere, but where?
Did you know that many of them are actually from the rainforest?
There’s a good chance you haven’t been to a rainforest, but you do most likely enjoy both foods and products that are often grown and produced there like chocolate, coffee, beef, avocados, and a variety of others.
Understanding what comes from our rainforests is an important part of living a sustainable lifestyle, and keeping an eye out for certifications and labels is a good way to support organizations that care.
So let’s get right into it, starting with the food:
What common foods, products, and ingredients are from the rainforest?
All chocolate comes from the fruit of the cacao tree, which grows in tropical rainforest environments.
Cocoa beans (another name for cacao) are simply the dried and fermented seeds of the fruit, and are used to make things like chocolate, cocoa powder, and cocoa butter.
Chocolate lovers are often unaware of the negative effects cocoa farming can have on the environment. For example, 60% of primate species have vanished from protected areas in the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) due to widespread farming and poaching.
The Ivory Coast is the largest cocoa producer as of 2022, but other countries face similar issues with cocoa farming.
2. Coffee & Tea
Like chocolate, coffee is the seed of a tropical plant which has to be dried, roasted, and ground before it becomes a hot cup of joe.
Close to 50% of the world drinks coffee everyday, but many people are simply unaware of what goes on behind the scenes of coffee farming.
One of the best examples of the issues with coffee is the current state of the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil. Only around 12% of the original forest remains, due to deforestation and environmental damage from things like coffee farming and cattle grazing.
In addition to coffee, many tea varieties are also grown in rainforest areas – especially in countries like Kenya and Indonesia, which happen to be home to some incredibly biodiverse rainforests.
The sugar you add to your coffee every morning probably comes from sugarcane, a tall and fast growing tropical grass, which is grown on massive monocrop plantations in tropical and subtropical regions.
Sugar can also be harvested from sugar beets, but it’s mainly from massive sugarcane plantations in areas of South America and Southeast Asia.
The sugar alternative Stevia is also grown from a plant species native to tropical regions in South America.
Since the 1990’s, an estimated 20,000 workers have died from chronic kidney disease, due to poor fluid intake while working on Central American plantations, which makes one question the ethics of some common brands.
Surprised to see beef on the list? Maybe you didn’t know that since 1961 Brazil has been the world’s second largest beef producer, only beaten by the US, and you can probably guess where all the cows are grazing (the rainforest).
The growth of the beef industry is crazy – but, the more concerning fact is that the largest driving factor of Brazilian Amazon deforestation from 2001 to 2013 was clearcutting for cattle pastures:
And while it has slowed somewhat, those deforested areas will likely never recover as urban sprawl expands all over the world.
But what about the food those cows eat?
The weird thing about soy is that 76% of it produced is used to feed livestock animals like chickens and cows, and only 20% by humans for food and 4% for things like biofuel.
What this means is that while tofu and soy milk aren’t currently the cause of much direct deforestation, the animals we feed it to like cattle and factory farmed poultry are the cause of considerable environmental harm.
6. Palm Oil
Palm oil is the poster child of rainforest products for a few different reasons.
It’s used as an ingredient in nearly any type of processed food, cosmetic, or cleaning product you can think of – mainly because of how productive the plant is, and how cheap the oil is.
Its widespread use is also why it’s considered one of the main causes of deforestation in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where it’s grown extensively.
In places like Malaysian Borneo, areas once covered by rainforest have been reduced by up to 50% due to clear cut logging for oil palm plantations. Some of the most unique, intelligent primate species like orangutans live their entire lives in the same jungles being cut down.
If you care about protecting rainforests, you should support skincare brands that don’t use palm oil. Other oils aren’t perfect either, but alternatives like coconut or soybean are less destructive than palm oil.
Coconuts aren’t actually nuts (they’re stone fruits), but they are the source of a super diverse range of useful products.
Coconut water and milk are refreshing beverages, the flesh can be dried and eaten raw, and coconut oil is used as an ingredient in cooking and cosmetics.
Even the husks of coconuts are used for things like crafts, fabrics, or added to soils for a boost in root-health.
The interesting thing about coconuts is that their recent explosion in popularity as an alternative to palm oil is seen as both a blessing and potential danger.
You may enjoy reading freelance journalist Ninith Coca’s series on the coming coconut crisis if you want to learn more – but the main point is that if we don’t treat coconut farming with caution, the industry could end up just like palm oil.
Coconuts don’t need huge amounts of pesticides to grow, and while they contain less oil they tend to make up for it with their many different uses. A strange and unpleasant reality of coconut farming is the use of trained macaque monkey slave labor in areas of Southeast Asia such as Thailand.
Brazil nuts and cashews are two types of nuts you’ll find growing in rainforest ecosystems, with brazil nuts growing only in the Amazon rainforest.
Which means when you buy Brazil nuts at your local grocery store, chances are they traveled thousands of miles to reach you!
Brazil nut trees pretty much only produce nuts while growing in pristine rainforests. There have been efforts to grow them commercially, but none of them have worked because only a few large, wild bee species are adapted to pollinating the trees.
Cashews on the other hand are commercially grown all over the world, especially in countries within Africa and Southeast Asia.
Superfood or a scam? Maybe both?
Açaí berries are grown throughout the Amazon rainforest, especially in the Pará state of Brazil. They’ve been a staple food in Amazonia floodplains for centuries and have grown in popularity globally since the 1990’s.
Unfortunately, increased açaí palm production has led to a reduction in tree abundance and species richness in their wetlands habitat – which affects the health of all other surrounding plants and animals, as well as the quality of the soil itself.
Some of the most deranged internet scams of the early 2000’s were centered around unproven açaí health benefits claiming to cure many different ailments.
These scams were so common that the Better Business Bureau included açaí supplements on their list of the Top 10 Scams and Rip-Offs of 2009.
10. Other fruits
Many familiar and delicious fruits like the ones listed below can all be found growing in tropical rainforests.
There are also hundreds of lesser known jungle fruits, but you probably won’t find them lining the shelves of your local supermarket unless you live near the forest itself.
Some fruits you may recognize:
- Avocado (yep, it’s a fruit)
- Passion fruit
The avocado industry in particular has been booming for decades because people simply adore the fruit.
Just look at this chart the USDA put together:
The craziest part of the avocado industry is that criminal organizations actually control large portions of their production and distribution, depending on the area.
Between 2009 and 2013 alone criminal organizations in Mexico seized an estimated $770 million of revenue from avocado producers.
Many spices and aromatics you may take for granted come from tropical rainforests, here are a few common ones:
- Vanilla beans
- Black pepper
Did you know spices are actually defense mechanisms for plants? Because tropical environments are so biodiverse (with lots of hungry herbivores around), plants like the ones above developed super fragrant spices for more protection.
12. Cosmetics and skincare
You can find ingredients made from rainforest plants, animals, and organisms in nearly every kind of cosmetic and skincare product out there.
Palm oil is used in products like detergents and dish soaps, shampoos, face cleansers, and other foaming products. Alternatives to palm oil like coconut oil and babassu oil are also popular, especially with brands who avoid using harmful cosmetic ingredients in their products.
Many other lesser known chemicals from rainforest plants are also starting to gain popularity with cosmetic companies, but these kinds of things take time to catch on.
Unfortunately, as we lose our rainforests we also lose the traditional ecological knowledge within those areas, making it harder to discover more of these amazing ingredients.
13. Timber and paper products
Do you own wooden furniture? How often do you use toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, or coffee filters?
Most of us use timber and paper products everyday without much thought. And while you should always avoid plastic when possible, knowing where wood and paper products come from is also important if you want to protect our forests.
There are two main types of logging:
- Clear cutting: cutting down large sections of a forest at once
- Selective cutting: removing the most valuable trees from a forest
Clear cutting happens all the time in rainforests to make room for cattle pasture land and other crops like soybean or palm oil.
Selective cutting is considered more sustainable, but most of the time these degraded areas of rainforest are eventually converted into farms for palm oil and soybean or cattle ranches.
The other issue is that in countries like Brazil, over half of the selective logging operations are illegal. These illegal operations tend to harvest more trees, damage surrounding plants and animals, and return more often.
What other rainforest industries are there?
Here are a couple other important rainforest industries you should be aware of, that weren’t covered in detail within this guide.
Why are there so many confusing rainforest certifications and labels?
Have you ever noticed the different certifications, logos, and stickers on food packaging?
Why are there so many of them? What do they all mean?
It’s easy to be confused when you consider the 450+ different “ecolabels” used in nearly 200 countries, most of which won’t satisfy the criteria set by environmental organizations.
Here’s a short list of some of the most reliable ones to watch out for:
- Rainforest Alliance Certificate
- FSC Certificate (Forest Stewardship Council)
- Fair Trade Certificates
- Organic Certificates
- RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil)
Still, the disconnect between the producers and consumers of food and other products is a big issue. It’s simply not possible for you to truly know where things come from even if you’re buying them based on these labels.
Certification programs are usually run by nonprofits or NGOs, and most of them have been accused of greenwashing or relying on weak policies at some point in time.
There’s also a bit of positive news when it comes to certifications, however.
A 2019 review found that while the ability of some sustainable certifications to actually reach their goals is questionable, many do have the “potential to work towards something more enabling”.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t the most promising of examples, but there’s more!
Another more recent 2023 review found mounting evidence, in particular for coffee, of social, economic, and environmental benefits from certifying farms under these kinds of labels.
So while they aren’t perfect, you can keep an eye out for some of these labels if you want to reduce your impact on rainforests. Just remember that buying things you don’t need is always going to be less sustainable.
Personally, I still avoid anything with palm oil in it even if it’s supposedly sustainable.
Once you understand just how common rainforest products are, hopefully you’ll begin to consider what you buy a bit more carefully when browsing your local shops.
Being curious about where things come from and how they impact the environment and our health is a seriously valuable trait to have.
What product were you most surprised to find out about?