This trendy yet mysterious tropical fruit has consumers buzzing, despite most not even being able to correctly pronounce its name. What’s in a name when the health claims promise to prevent cancer and melt away fat? Don’t get too excited, although this berry does pack a nutritious punch, it may not live up to its miracle health claims.
Native to Central and South America, the açaí (pronounced ah-sah-EE) berry is the fruit of the açaí palm tree. The berries are small, round and a very deep-dark shade of purple. One palm usually contains over 500 berries that grow below the palm fronds in branched groups. Their appearance is similar to a grape, but the seed inside the açaí berry takes up about 80 percent of the fruit. Due to the lack of edible flesh, most açaí berries found in the U.S. are sold as a frozen pulp, powder or most commonly, already incorporated into food products such as juices, smoothies, jellies, yogurts, ice creams, liquors, snack bars and dietary supplements. Some beauty products also boast their inclusion of açaí berry extracts in the ingredients.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, this berry has been under the microscope as scientists study its components, functions and potential health benefits. If Amazonian tribes have been consuming these berries for hundreds of years, then there must be something magical about them. Indeed this berry is nutritious. All three macro, or energy-yielding nutrients carbohydrates, fats and proteins, are present along with essential fatty acids, vitamin A, calcium and iron. However, what makes these berries a true superfood is their amount of flavonoids, or more specifically, the anthocyanins. These compounds are responsible for the dark, rich pigments of the açaí berry, which have been found to be antioxidant powerhouses. Antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties and protect our cells from damage by scavenging free radicals, which in excess can cause damage to the cells in our bodies. However, an excess intake of antioxidants, typically seen with dietary supplement use, may also cause damage to our cells.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the açaí berry is safe to consume with little-known side effects, but overall, just as nutritious as other well-known berries such as strawberries and blueberries. The only potential drawback of the açaí berry is the abundance of false health claims. Research has shown that plant-based foods rich in essential nutrients and compounds such as flavonoids are linked to better health, but alone, these berries have displayed miracle powers. They will likely not induce weight loss or reverse chronic disease. The bottom line here is that açaí berries can bring colorful and nutritious diversity to your diet.