Acai berries have been at the forefront of extravagant claims of health benefits over recent years and consequently have suffered from something of a public backlash. Here I will bring you some background and insights without the hype.
There are several species of Acai palm trees (genus Euterpe) which are native to tropical Central and South America. The species can be found from the North of Belize to all the way across the continent in the south of both Brazil and Peru.
The acai palm trees generally grow well under wet and swampy conditions. The Euterpe family of plants is known for their moderate height, thin stems, and attractive palms. The trees may reach a height of 45-60 feet and the palm leaves have an average width of 9 feet.
The Acai Palm is famous for its berries, which are dark purple and about the size of a large grape. The pulp has a similar consistency to that of a soft pear. Each year, two crops of fruits are produced and the number of fruit borne may vary on each tree but usually range anywhere from 600-1000.
The berry, which was initially more famous for the large amounts of juice contained within the pulp, has been consumed by South Americans for centuries. It was later discovered that the flesh of the fruit was just as delicious.
There is a large seed inside the berry and the color of the flesh may range from green to dark purple, depending on how ripe the berry is. The flesh is soft and pulpy like a mango, but unfortunately the seed makes up the large part of the fruit.
The berries of the Acai palm are usually consumed in a salad or the pulp is crushed as a means of obtaining the juice.
In some parts of South America, acai berries also function as a major food source and make up more than 40-50% of each meal.
To add variety to the diet, the pulp is also squeezed and various flavored juices are made from the berry. The berry juice is also added to the local sodas, beverages, and soft drinks.
Frequently, the berries are served in rice puddings and the pudding is often served cold.
Once the fruit’s season comes to an end, the fruit is gathered and the pulp is either frozen or freeze dried. The food industry in South America now market acai berry juices, drinks, sorbets and sodas, often, combining the acai berry juice with other fruit juices.
The seeds are also used in the food industry and are not thrown away after the fleshy part of the berry has been eaten. The collected seeds are crushed and frequently used as livestock feed or combined with various fertilizers.
Many other countries have tried to grow the Acai plant, but so far all efforts have failed to nurture this plant outside of South America.
The Acai plant does not only have nutritional value but is often used in the material industry. The palm leaves are utilized to build mats, hats, carpets and for roof thatching.
Acai fruits have been found to have numerous chemicals, some of which may have medicinal value. The polyphenols contained within the fruit have been found to have strong antioxidant properties (5).
The levels of anthocyanin, flavonols, and proanthocyanidins have also been found in large amounts in these berries and current research indicates that these chemicals may protect against the potent oxidants like peroxy and hydroxy radicals (3).
The latest research indicates that these antioxidants can penetrate human cells, help protect the body from harmful bacteria and help ward off upper respiratory tract infections.
Other work indicates that the seeds of the fruit also are potent antioxidants and may help prolong the shelf life of foods (5).
Acai berries are also reported to have some medicinal benefits. The native South Americans have used the fruit and the roots of the plant to treat numerous ailments including constipation, diarrhea, and nausea.
The juice has also been used to treat a variety of skin allergies and infections (4). Current research is being done to investigate the role of the berries in lowering blood cholesterol.
There is speculation that the freeze dried acai pulp may have anti-inflammatory properties and its actions are now being studied in laboratory tests. Other immunological properties of the pulp include stimulation of the macrophages to kill bacteria.
Other research being conducted on the acai berry includes its anticarcinogenic properties. There is some evidence that the fruit may have the ability to stop the rapid proliferation of certain cancer cells (2).
Because the acai berry has a deep purple color, it has been used as a natural food coloring agent. In addition, the dark pigment of the fruit is now being studied as a dye for use in magnetic resonance imaging (1).
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