If you are even remotely involved in the health and fitness industry, I'm willing to bet that you have at least heard of the açaí berry. The buzz around this small fruit, and its believed antioxidant and anti-aging properties, has increased exponentially — largely due to its attention on Oprah.
Herein lies the problem: Once a natural ingredient like this begins to receive attention for its potential health benefits, it goes mainstream.
We become bombarded with ads and products claiming to answer our health-related prayers. So how do you know what to believe and what's just marketing hype? Read on, my friends, I'm here to give you the answers and set the record straight.
Açaí (ah-sigh-ee), most often called nature's high-energy superfruit, is found in floodplain areas of the Amazon River, deep in the rainforest of Brazil. This small, round, blackish-purple berry grows in clusters on branches of a special palm tree, similar to a bunch of grapes.
Surprisingly, each berry actually contains only a small amount of the precious açaí pulp as the stone, or pit, makes up about 90 percent of the fruit.
These berries have been prized for hundreds of years by Brazilian natives for their ability to provide a sense of strength, energy, and a high nutritional content.
Research Supporting the Benefits
Some studies have shown that the açaí berry contains high levels of antioxidants also known as anthocyanins, a particular class of flavonoid. These studies concluded that the açaí berry contains ten times more antioxidants than red grapes and ten to thirty times more anthocyanins than red wine.(3) Other studies have also demonstrated that blood antioxidant capacity increases within two hours of consuming a commercial açaí juice.(6)
Most people hear the word antioxidants and associate it with being healthy, but know nothing about what antioxidants do, so here's a crash course:
Antioxidants are very important as they reduce damaging forms of oxygen, called free radicals, which can attack cells in our body. By reducing free radicals, antioxidants aid in disease prevention, overall wellness, and can help to slow the effects of aging at a time when we're constantly being exposed to harmful toxins in our environment.
Research also suggests that the açaí berry may help fight cancer cells. A University of Florida study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that açaí berries triggered a self-destruct response in up to 86 percent of leukemia cells tested in vitro.
Six different chemical extracts were made from açaí fruit pulp, and each extract was prepared in seven concentrations. Four of the extracts were shown to kill significant numbers of leukemia cells when applied for 24 hours. Depending on the extract and concentration, anywhere from 35 to 86 percent of the cells died.
Although the açaí berry is not an approved treatment for leukemia and scientists don't want to give false hope, the results of these initial studies are very promising.(3)
The Many Benefits
In case you're unfamiliar, here are some of the many health benefits currently being declared for the açaí berry, in addition to the studies mentioned above:
- Rich in monounsaturated fats, dietary fiber, and phytosterols, which promote cardiovascular and digestive health.
- Excellent source of the trace minerals such as copper and manganese.
- Full of minerals like vitamin E, potassium, calcium, and magnesium (from chlorophyl, which most people are deficient in), essential to proper muscle contraction and regeneration.
- Compared to other fruits, açaí has a high protein content and the nutritional value is compared to egg proteins. One liter of açaí juice contains 12.6 g of proteins. (4)
- Normalizes and regulates cholesterol levels.
- Prevents atherosclerosis, a disease affecting arterial blood vessels.
- Increases memory and mental clarity.
- Enhances visual acuity.
- Promotes sound sleep.
- Anti-inflammatory. Rich in monosaturated oleic acid (similar to that of olive oil) which helps omega-3 fatty acids penetrate the cell membranes in the body. Together, the oleic acid and omega-3s help the cell membrane to be more supple, allowing hormones, neurotransmitters, and insulin receptors to function properly. This is important because high insulin levels create inflammation, and inflammation can speed up the aging process. (2)
- Boosts energy levels. The energetic properties are believed to be attributed to the amount of unsaturated fatty acids.
- Improves circulation.
- High in dietary fiber.
- Improves digestive function.
- Cleanses and detoxifies the body.
- Strengthens the immune system.
- Helps maintain healthy heart function.
- Improves sexual performance. The Viagra of the Amazon, perhaps?
In Brazil, the juice and açaí fruits are often used in smoothies, sodas, ice cream, and to flavor liquor. In northern Brazil, açaí (or jussara, a common folk name for it) is served in gourds with tapioca, and can be consumed in either sweet or savory recipes. In southern Brazil, açaí is paired with granola.
Açai is a highly caloric food due to its high percentage of fat. So if you're monitoring your total daily calories, be sure to factor this into your daily intake.
It's also expensive. A one week supply of juice can range from $17-40 or more. The powdered version is even pricier.
Where can I find it?
Because of the high fat content, açaí deteriorates rapidly after harvest, which is why the raw material is not generally available outside of the immediate growing region. The açaí fruit pulp can be frozen and freeze-dried, but is most often found at health food and gourmet stores, or online, in juice or supplement (pill) form.
Some retail health/smoothie cafes (think Jamba Juice) are also adding açaí juice to their smoothies, often in combination with other fruits.
When searching this berry out, be sure to read the ingredients label. Stick to juice drinks that are primarily made of açaí and other fruits, without all kinds of other additives and sweeteners. The fewer ingredients, the better.
I'm not going to lie, the juice alone — without any sweeteners or other fruit juices — is quite bitter. It tastes a little like prune juice, but without the sweetness. It does have a light aftertaste as well.
However, when mixed with other fruits, it can actually be quite refreshing and fruity.
The Weight Loss Claim
The açaí berry has also been heavily marketed as a weight loss treatment due to its combination of essential fatty acids, fiber, phytosterols, and amino acids. I personally believe that there is not one magic pill for weight loss that applies across the board, as nice as that would be.
But I also wouldn't go as far as to say that consuming products that contain açaí won't help, either.
If even half of the list of possible health benefits are true, the consumption of açaí, in one form or another, may help to nourish and calibrate the body — which could provide a boost in the metabolism. T
his would, in turn, allow your system to run more efficiently, allowing you to feel better, move more, eat less, and in turn provide a reduction in weight.
So What's the Verdict?
As with any fairly new health claims, I wouldn't put all my eggs in one basket. But, based on current research to date, it seems that açaí berry may offer many health benefits. I
f you can fit it into your daily caloric intake, and your pocket book allows, I say give it a try; just be sure to incorporate it into a balanced diet.
1. Açai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) Polyphenolics in Their Glycoside and Aglycone Forms Induce Apoptosis of HL-60 Leukemia Cells. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. ACS Publications. 26 Jan 2006.
2. Acai Research Center
3. Brazilian berry destroys cancer cells in lab, UF study shows. University of Florida News. 12 Jan 2006.
4. Constituents. Markan Global Enterprises, Inc.
5. Dr. Perricone's 10 Superfoods
6. Antioxidant Capacity and Other Bioactivities of the Freeze-Dried Amazonian Palm Berry, Euterpe oleraceae Mart. (Acai). Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. ACS Publications. 7 Oct 2006.