With a taste approximating chocolate and raspberries and an antioxidant profile that trumps red wine, the açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) berry, native to the rainforests of Brazil, has been hailed by some as the world's foremost superfood. It was catapulted from the obscurity of its Amazon origins to mainstream American food fad when Oprah Winfrey's resident expert Dr. Nicholas Perricone singled out açaí as number one on his list of foods that most promote overall health. Since then, it has been linked to varying health promises, from weight-loss miracles to Viagra-like revitalization. In all the hype, açaí has made its way into an increasing number of energy drinks, juices, beauty products, and even its very own liquor, VeeV. Among some Amazonian villagers, açaí is a centuries-old folk remedy for restoring energy, curing fevers, and helping women recuperate after giving birth. But what does science have to say about this seemingly phenomenal purple berry?
More Antioxidants Than Wine
The human research on açaí is, at this point, fairly limited. There are no clinical trials that have verified the berry's potential as, for example, a weight loss panacea or cholesterol cure-all. So far, what has been confirmed is that the berry is a storehouse of potent antioxidants that are indeed absorbed in the human body. The berry gets its deep plum-red color from compounds called anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants that protect cells from the free radicals that lead to premature aging and disease. According to Dr. Perricone, açaí contains 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes and 10 to 30 times the anthocyanins of red wine. A Texas A & M study found that antioxidant activity in the blood significantly increases after açaí pulp consumption, suggesting that açaí could help guard against such ailments as cardiovascular disease and cancer, though further research is needed.
The Good Fat
The fiber and healthy fats in the açaí berry can contribute to a sensible diet that promotes weight loss, holds down cholesterol and maintains ideal blood sugar levels. It is a high-fiber, high-protein and low-sugar food, making it an ideal addition to a weight-loss regimen. Açaí 's fiber content may have cardiovascular and digestive benefits, while its phytosterols may reduce blood plasma cholesterol. Açaí is a source of monounsaturated ("good") fats, similar to olive oil, and rich in oleic acid. Oleic acid assists in keeping cell membranes flexible, thereby allowing hormone and insulin receptors to function their best. This holds insulin levels in check and wards off inflammation.
It is important to note that the nutritive benefits of açaí are similar to those of its relatives: blueberries, cranberries and strawberries. While some studies suggest that açaí is superior in its antioxidant punch, so far no study has shown health benefits significantly different from similar fruits and vegetables. Therefore, while açaí is a positive addition to any diet, consumers should be skeptical about açaí supplements and preparations that promise a veritable fountain of youth or miraculous weight loss results.
When choosing açaí products, it's also important to look for organically grown fruit. Not only will you be avoiding undesirable chemical pesticides, but you may also be protecting the rainforest. Açaí berries grow on native palms—some reaching up to 60 feet high—scattered haphazardly throughout the rainforest. Organic açaí producers gather their berries in the wild, seeking out the palms where they've naturally taken root. Yet the growing global demand for acai has led to the introduction of conventionally planted acai orchards, which some fear endanger the diversity of the rainforest by introducing a "monoculture" of one dominant plant. In the quest for ultimate human health that acai promises, it wouldn't make sense to sacrifice the health of Mother Earth.