A dark and exotic berry surrounded by controversy, the acai berry took over the U.S.’s health scene several years ago, touting its “superfood” powers. But how much of it is myth and how much is reality? Who exactly is this mysterious berry — and what can it do for your health?
Legend has it that, long ago, there was an indigenous tribe living in the area of Belém do Pará, Brazil. It was a hard time, when food was scarce and many were dying of hunger. The tribe’s Chief Itaki made a drastic decision to sacrifice all the new born children and even his beloved daughter’s child wasn’t spared. The Chief’s daughter Iaçá cried and prayed to God Tupã to show her father another way to help eliminate hunger. One night, Iaçá heard a child’s cry and followed the sound into the forest, to a beautiful palm tree, where a vision of her son appeared. She went to hug her son but the vision disappeared. In the morning Iaca was found dead, hugging the trunk of the palm tree, which was laden with small dark fruit. Itaki ordered the fruit to be harvested and, in honor of his daughter, named the fruit Açaí, which is precisely the name Iaçá reversed.
The açaí berry (pronounced “ah-sigh-EE”) is a grape-like fruit that is a good source of antioxidants (anthocyanin), fiber, and omega-6 fatty acids. The fruit is about the size of a large blueberry yet only the outermost layers of the fruit, the pulp surrounding a large internal seed, are edible. The berries are harvested from açaí palms, which are some of the same trees used to harvest edible hearts of palm. Proponents of its superfood status claim the açaí berry supports weight loss, lowers cholesterol, and promotes detoxification. However, scientists and nutritionists agree that more research is needed on the berry’s true effect on human health. The açaí berry is commonly used in juices, beverages, smoothies, frozen treats and dietary supplements.
“While açaí berries seem to have a variety of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, we can’t expect them to neutralize the effect of life in the drive-thru restaurant line,” says Beth A. Booker, a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist at Ft. Sanders Health & Fitness Center, in Knoxville, TN. “Açaí berries [are only] one part of the equation. It is important to [support your diet with] a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, [in order to balance] your nutrient intake. When in doubt, always choose brightly colored fruits and vegetables [and add] whole grains and lean proteins to maximize the nutrition available from your food.”
“ Açaí berries contain high levels of anthocyanins, which are responsible for their dark blue-purple color. These powerful chemicals provide antioxidant protection, which may forestall aging and disease processes, “ Beth explains.
The origin of the word “anthocyanin” is Greek, from the words meaning “plant” and “blue.” Anthocyanins provide the rich red, purple, and blue hues in many fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Foods richest in anthocyanins, such as açaí, blueberries, and red grapes, have the deepest colors, ranging from deep purple to black.
Anthocyanins and flavonoids are powerful antioxidants that enhance the body’s cell protection system. Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants may help combat some of the harmful free radicals leading to disease and aging process. By lessening the destructive power of free radicals, antioxidants may help reduce the risk of some diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
Although no conclusive studies have been conducted on humans, it is believed that the anthocyanins isolated from the açaí berry were able to eradicate human leukemia cells. In a study conducted by a group of Texas AgriLife Research scientists on 12 healthy people, the subjects had slightly higher measures of antioxidants in their blood than people getting a placebo. Research showed that, theoretically, the berry’s stimulation in antioxidant activity might help prevent diseases caused by oxidative stress such as heart disease and cancer. “ Açaí berries are a good source of antioxidants, fiber, and heart-healthy fats, but research is limited, and many of these claims haven’t yet been proven,” warns Ms. Booker.
Acaí berries also contain healthy fatty acids, such as oleic acid, one of the same oils found in olive oil. Most experts agree that oleic acid is one of the better fats for humans to consume, believing that it helps lower total cholesterol levels.
Acai Berry claims to fame:
- Açaí berries pack a high concentration of antioxidants that help combat premature aging, with 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes and 10 to 30 times the anthocyanins of red wine.
- The berry contains monounsaturated fats (healthy fats), dietary fiber, and phytosterols, which help promote cardiovascular and digestive health.
- Açaí berries can help proper muscle contraction and regeneration via their content of essential amino acid complex and valuable trace minerals.
- Some believe açaí berry reduces appetite and increases energy. However, there is currently no scientific evidence to support the berry’s impact on weight loss.
- Due to its high content of antioxidants, which delays aging, some cosmetics and beauty products use açaí oil as one of their ingredients. Studies show that acai oil may be a safer alternative to other tropical oils used in beauty products, especially since açaí oil maintains its high levels of antioxidants even after having been processed and stored for a long period of time.
- Açaí is naturally low in sugar, with a flavor often described as a mixture of red wine and chocolate. Because of its low sugar content, when available in juice form, it might contain added sugar, so make sure to check the food label for carbohydrates levels. Here are some favorites you can find in grocery stores:
Blue Bunny’s FrozFruit Superfruit Raspberry Açai bars. With only 90 calories each, they contain pureed acai berries and raspberries. You can burn these calories by walking for 20 minutes.
Sambazon Organic Açai juice. This drink contains 50 calories per serving, 80 percent juice, and no added caffeine. Burn off the calories by allowing 10 minutes of jogging.
Tropicana Pure Raspberry Açai juice. This 100 percent juice drink has only 140 calories, 1 gram of fat, and no added sugars. Get on the stationary bike for 15 minutes and burn off the calories.
Due to their high content of anthocyanins, the açaí berries have a deep purple color and are therefore easily used as natural food coloring. So, next time you are in the kitchen, mix up some açaí berry puree into a fresh batch of vanilla ice cream and decorate each bowl with fresh mint leaves for a lovely and exotic treat.
The straw made from açaí leaves can be turned into hats, baskets, or brooms. Use the seeds for crafts to create bead necklaces. Use them in their natural brown color or dye the beads and turn them into fashionable accessories.
Purple hues can be both soothing and energizing, depending on the color combinations chosen. Decorate your “quiet” corner with relaxing deep purple tones, add some dark blue pillows and lighten things up with sage green accents. Light up a berry-scented candle and choose your music depending on your mood. Try Putumayo’s Brazilian Lounge or Acoustic Brazil for relaxation and Brazilian Groove for gaining some energy. Find the CDs at http://www.putumayo.com/putumayo_cds/brazil. Not only will you get a glimpse into the exotic culture of Brazil through their traditional rhythms but you will be supporting a great cause. Part of the proceeds will go towards helping communities in the countries where the music originates. Charitable recipients include Amnesty International, Coffee Kids, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, and many more.
Get Açaí Recipes.
Article was first published in Cityview Magazine – May/Jun 2013