What Is Acai?
Two of the most-hyped foods of the past decade have to be quinoa and acai berries. For a while, it was a sin to not have a berry blend smoothie with at least a hint of acai berry. These Brazilian berries also prompt two major questions: What makes them so super, and how the heck do you pronounce acai?
Acai berries come from the acai palm (Euterpe oleracea) tree, a species of palm tree, and have come to be highly regarded as a nutritious superfood. In the Amazon region of South America they are a dietary staple, but they’ve quickly become world-renowned.
Potential acai berry benefits include:
- High antioxidant content
- Cholesterol-lowering effects
- Advantages for brain health
- Weight loss
Pronounced ah-sah-EE, these so-called superfoods are not actually berries at all; they are stone fruits, members of the drupe family. (But we don’t need to get too technical about it.)
Because of a very limited shelf life, these deep-purple “berries” are not sold outside of their native land in fresh, whole form. They are sold in outside markets, like the United States and Canada, in dried or powdered form, as well as fresh juices.
Acai Berry Nutrition Facts
Acai berries are extremely nutrient-dense and high in antioxidants. They are interestingly high in fat—good fat—for a fruit as well. Because acai berries are not sold in their whole form in much of the world, it can be difficult to determine the specific nutritional values for powdered and dried acai.
The following table provides estimates for 100 grams (g) of pure acai, which is about one serving of dried powder.
|Total fat||5 g||8%|
|Dietary fiber||2 g||8%|
|Vitamin A||750 IU||15%|
Acai nutrition goes a little bit further, because the fruits are a rich source of antioxidants and have a very high ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) score. ORAC is used to determine antioxidant levels in food.
These berries are high in flavonoids called anthocyanins, and may contain over 30 times the amount of red wine. They are also much more antioxidant-dense than blueberries. One hundred grams of frozen acai pulp has an ORAC of 15,401; the same amount of blueberries scores 4,669.
Acai Berry Health Benefits
The high concentration of antioxidants is responsible for all the interest in acai berries, and it’s also the source of the potential benefits. Studies have shown the berries are well absorbed by the gut, potentially giving them an edge over other strong antioxidant sources.
1. Lower Cholesterol
Studies in both animals and humans have shown acai may have a positive effect on cholesterol levels.
One small pilot study from 2011 showed that overweight adults consuming acai smoothies twice per day for a month had lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels than when they started. Because the work featured only 10 participants, much more research is required, however.
Anthocyanins and plant sterols found in acai are believed to be the catalyst for these potential positive effects on cholesterol levels.
There is also research indicating that anthocyanin consumption can reduce the risk for heart attack in young and middle-aged women by 32%.
2. Cognitive Function
There is evidence that antioxidants and their anti-inflammatory effects can play a role in preventing or delaying age-related cognitive impairment. This could mean that acai berries have a role in battling diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other conditions affecting memory and cognition.
Studies have shown that anthocyanins can help improve memory and promote brain health by reducing inflammation, promoting blood flow, and allowing the brain to function properly.
So far, research exploring acai and brain health has been limited to lab and animal studies.
3. Anti-Cancer Properties
Studies have repeatedly shown than anthocyanins can have anti-carcinogenic (anti-cancer) effects. Multiple lab studies have shown anthocyanins can affect cancer cells in the following ways:
- Activating detox enzymes
- Blocking cancer cell proliferation
- Inducing cancer cell death
- Inhibiting beginning formation of tumors
- Preventing cancer cell invasion
Studies in mice have shown acai pulp can reduce the incidence of bladder and colon cancer, while another study on mice showed acai had no effects on stomach cancer.
There is no magic food to stop cancer, but certain nutrients may play a role in stopping cancerous cells from spreading. It is impossible to definitively say that eating acai berries will reduce the risk of cancer, and far more work is needed to learn if there are anti-cancer effects for humans.
Final Word on Acai Berry Benefits
There is a lot to be excited about with acai berries, as their antioxidants offer a variety of benefits for your health. But there is no one food that can prevent disease or guarantee perfect health. Eat a well-balanced diet high in fruit and vegetables, and incorporate acai for an added boost of valuable antioxidants.
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