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They are definitely exotic and intriguing, touted as “superfoods,” and until fairly recently, wholly unfamiliar to American consumers. Dragon fruit (does it burst into flames when cut?), passion fruit (does it instigate ardor when ingested?), and açai (how do you pronounce that anyway?) are just now making their way into the consciousness of health-minded folks. But they’ve been local staples in tropical and subtropical regions of the world for centuries, where their flavor and texture are as much appreciated as their nutritional benefits—all three are excellent sources of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
It was in Nicaragua that Chuck Casano first encountered dragon fruits. “When I returned to the States, I wondered why I couldn’t find a delicious red dragon fruit smoothie that I enjoyed every day in Nicaragua,” he says. And his experience working for a nonprofit made him acutely aware of the distressing conditions in the country. “Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and most farmers cannot afford pesticides, so that is where I saw Nicaragua as a huge untapped resource for organic raw material and produce.”
Dragon Fruit Fuels Local Economies
And so, Pitaya Foods came into being (‘pitaya’ is Spanish for dragon fruit). But Casano and his cofounder Ben Hiddlestone had more on their minds than just getting some unusual fruit to market. “We started this project with a promise to a small group of farmers in Nicaragua: that we would purchase 100 percent of the USDA Organic Red Dragon Fruit they produced, and we would help them obtain their organic certifications. Twelve years later, we’ve helped over 830 farms get USDA Certified Organic, protected 600 hectares from deforestation, created 175 new jobs for single mothers to help process the fruit, and injected $25 million into the local economy.”
One Step Farther
Not only does their company contribute enormously to local prosperity in the war-torn country, but it strives to offer benefits that go beyond the immediate environment. Pitaya Foods is committed to renewable energy, operating out of one of the only solar-powered facilities in Central America; and it created a unique Foreign Supplier Verification Program that started in Nicaragua and is being implemented in recently developed supply chains from Brazil and Peru to Mexico and Vietnam.
But it’s the human factor that matters most, as Casano explains. “Our company helps support hundreds of farmers and their families, which is a great responsibility that can’t be taken lightly. Now that I’m a father, I want to be an example to my children that you can build a company that has a positive impact on the planet as well as every person involved. It also feels great creating something that’s healthy and sustainable that people love!”
Açai: Rich, chocolatey flavor with hints of raspberry, blackberry, and pomegranate.
Dragon fruit: Slightly sweet with a delicious kiwi-pear flavor.
Passion fruit: Sweet and tangy with notes of peach, mango, and pineapple.