Açai Berries: How healthy are they?

In early 2008, a new superfood broke onto the health scene thanks to a segment on Oprah. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiologist/author who frequently appears on the show, touted the wonders of Açai (pronounced “ah-sigh-ee“). A previously hidden health food was suddenly everywhere, from supermarket shelves to internet wonder pills.

Açai, as a wonder supplement, is claimed to improve weight loss, increase energy levels, improve digestion, aid sleep, detoxify, improve skin appearance, improve heart health, reverse diabetes and other chronic illnesses, reduce cholesterol levels, and increase sexual virility and performance. It’s claimed to be high in fiber, healthy fatty acids, and antioxidants.

But just how accurate are the claims about the trendy Brazilian berry? Are they truly the wonder they’re advertised to be?

Açai: Where does it come from?

The trendy fruit comes from Euterpe oleracea, a specific species of palm now known as the Açai palm. There are actually eight closely related species in the genus Euterpe, all of which are native to South America. They’re small, slender trees that grow up to 30 meters (90 feet) tall with leaves that stretch out to a maximum 3 meters (10 feet). They grow quickly and were once grown both for their fruits and hearts of palm. Ever since the global demand for Açai berries has risen, however, the Açai palms have switched to almost entirely fruit-producers, with the hearts of palm garnished from their closest cousins instead.

An Acai Palm Grove

An Acai Palm Grove

Açai berries, the fruit of these palms, are small dark-purple grape-like fruit about an inch wide. These berries have made up a large portion of indigenous diets for generations. It has been estimated that traditional Caboclo populations in the area eat so much Açai that it makes up 42% of their diet by weight.1 The juice and pulp of the fruits are used in juice blends, smoothies, sodas and other beverages. It’s a common drink in northern Brazil, in everything from ice cream to alcohol.

Açai: The Nutritious Content

The proponents of Açai have claimed its a miraculous fruit, with ‘10 times more antioxidants than red grapes‘ and ‘10 to 30 times the anthocyanins of red wine‘. On top of the antioxidant benefits, people claim that Açai has the ‘oleic acid content of olive oil‘, long praised for its health benefits. But is Açai the superfood it’s claimed to be?

acai-berry

They don't use the fruit!

Truth is that fresh Açai is a healthy fruit. It does have antioxidants and oleic acid. The benefits from fresh Açai are great. The Açai in the United States, however, is not the fresh fruit. Unless you live where it’s grown, you can’t get the fresh berries. Instead, most Açai in the rest of the world is a freeze-dried form called Opti-açai. This is a powder made from the skin of the berries, and doesn’t have the oleic acid present in the natural fruit, and nowhere near the levels of antioxidants claimed.

Frozen pulp and juice is also made from Açai fruits, but even these pale in comparison to their reputation. Despite the claim that Açai is far better than other antioxidant sources, scientific analysis of different juices found that it fell closer to the middle of the pack, containing less antioxidants than pomegranate juice, red wine, grape juice and blueberry juice.2 It fared about as well as black cherry juice and cranberry juice, and better than orange juice, apple juice, and iced tea beverages. Other studies have had similar results, with Acai somewhere below grapes and even strawberries but above some other fruits.3

On top of less-than-wowing antioxidant levels, the beneficial oleic acid so often touted degrades rapidly in storage and transport, so it isn’t nearly as high in juices and frozen pulp as it is in the original fruit-and even still, the original fruit contains only around 55% oleic acid, while high-quality olive oils contain 85% oleic acid.

Most of the fiber it’s claimed to have is in the seeds, which aren’t processed into the juices and frozen pulps made from the berries. So while the actual fruits might be great for you, the processed versions are not the same as the fresh fruit.

Ever since the mention on Oprah, dietary Açai juice supplements have popped up everywhere. Unfortunately, most of these don’t contain as much Açai as they claim. And even worse, many are scams. Many are offering “free trials” of hyped-up wonder supplements that will lead to weight loss, health, and beauty. But consumers who buy into these scams find it hard, if not impossible, to then cancel their free trials.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has issued a warning to consumers not to enroll on any online trials of diet products made with Açai. What of the claims that Açai will clear your skin, help you lose weight, or be better in bed?

“There are no magical berries from the Brazilian rainforest that cure obesity-only painfully real credit card charges and empty weight loss promises,” said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in the consumer warning statement. “Aggressive Acai berry pitches on the Internet entice countless consumers into free trials promising weight loss, energy and detoxification. These claims are based on folklore, traditional remedies and outright fabrications-unproven by real scientific evidence. In reality, consumers lose more money than weight after free trials transition into inescapable charges.”

The Hard Truth

Sadly, there’s no evidence that suggests Açai pills will help you flatten your tummy, detoxify, or any of the other advertised. Oprah’s doctor who promoted the berry in the first place had this to say in an ABC news investigation:

“We were looking at foods that have deep colors… I’d be surprised if by itself Açai could help [you lose weight]. It’s not going to hurt you, and it’s as good an antioxidant as anything else… That’s not where I would put my money… Supplements have limited benefits.”

The trouble with Açai, as with any health phenomenon, is that we quickly lose sight of the truth behind the claims. People think that:

  • a) every food with high levels of antioxidants or some other healthy compound will somehow bestow amazing health benefits
  • b) we can package them all neatly in little colorful pills

Both simply aren’t true. It’s not that easy to create supplements that have the same power as raw foods. And even the raw foods are only so good for you-eating a ton of antioxidants isn’t going to turn you into Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie if you still snack on french fries and rarely exercise. You still have to balance healthy eating with a healthy lifestyle.

Oprah lawyers are now looking into companies that claim support from her doctors.  Neither Oprah Winfrey nor Dr. Oz endorse or are in any way associated with any Açai berry product or on-line solicitation of such products-period.  In the meantime, people are urged to be smart about their health choices and not fall victim to hyped-up nutrition scams.

The verdict?

The verdict?

Are Açai berries healthy? Yes, they are. They do contain antioxidants and good fatty acids. But they aren’t some magical super cure-all. Truth is, you probably get more for your money by just eating fresh fruits and vegetables available in your grocery store. While Açai might be exotic sounding and interesting, you can get just as much, if not more, of its positive properties from blueberries, pomegranates, tomatoes and other colorful foods.

Don’t let the hype fool you. If you can afford it and like the taste, there’s no reason not to have Açai in your diet-just don’t expect a miracle. And if you are on a tight budget, there are much cheaper ways to eat healthy and pack your meals with antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids.

References:

1Murrieta, R., Dufour, D., & Siqueira, A. (1999). Food consumption and subsistence in three Caboclo populations on Marajo Island, Amazonia, Brazil. Human Ecology, 27 (3), 455-475 DOI: 10.1023/A:1018779624490

2. Seeram, N., Aviram, M., Zhang, Y., Henning, S., Feng, L., Dreher, M., & Heber, D. (2008). Comparison of Antioxidant Potency of Commonly Consumed Polyphenol-Rich Beverages in the United States Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 56 (4), 1415-1422 DOI: 10.1021/jf073035s

3. Kuskoski, E., Asuero, A., Morales, M., & Fett, R. (2006). Frutos tropicais silvestres e polpas de frutas congeladas: atividade antioxidante, polifenóis e antocianinas Ciência Rural, 36 (4) DOI: 10.1590/S0103-84782006000400037

  • Doan

    Hey guys-
    Gourmet.com just did an article on Acai that you guys might like to take a look at.

    http://www.gourmet.com/food/2009/04/acai-superfood-or-harmful-fad

    this quote is nice: “Açaí makes you fat.”

  • Doan

    Hey guys-
    Gourmet.com just did an article on Acai that you guys might like to take a look at.

    http://www.gourmet.com/food/2009/04/acai-superfood-or-harmful-fad

    this quote is nice: “Açaí makes you fat.”

  • http://www.nutritionwonderland.com John Serrao

    Superfood – that word is becoming almost as useless as ‘natural’. Leave it to food marketers – anything is possible.

  • http://www.nutritionwonderland.com John Serrao

    Superfood – that word is becoming almost as useless as ‘natural’. Leave it to food marketers – anything is possible.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VUNDNJKDFJYB6EB524C4VOISXQ Jordan

    how about make wine from acai?

  • Sister

    Sigh. You have shattered my addiction to these delicious berries. I suppose when you cover them in chocolate, it’s probably not good, either.

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