Publix GreenWise Market Magazine - June 2008
This purple gem from the rain forest is a health seeker's treasure.
Say it aloud—ah-SIGH-ee—and you'll feel like you've just exhaled a long, satisfied breath. Drink its juice, and you'll discover that the little acai berry tastes as refreshing as its name sounds. But for all its exotic and tasty charm, the real strength of this Amazon import may lie in its health benefits.
Brazilians have long used acai juice, seeds and roots to treat a wide range of health conditions, including fever, diabetes, liver and kidney diseases, and muscle pain. Recent research indicates they may be onto something. When scientists put acai under the microscope, they found an array of nutritional goodies: vitamins A, thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), C and E, plus potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc and fiber. Plus, lab research on freeze-dried acai (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, November 2006) found it to be a mild inhibitor of cox-1 and cox-2, enzymes that play prominent roles in inflammation.
Acai's biggest health boost might come from its high antioxidant level, which makes it a strong potential foil for immune-system diseases such as cancer. In lab research at the University of Florida (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, February 2006), acai pulp was used to destroy human leukemia cells. "We saw effectiveness in the equivalent of drinking a half-cup of pure acai juice a day," says researcher Stephen Talcott, Ph.D., now an assistant professor of food chemistry at Texas A&M University. He cautions that the research was done on cells in a test tube, and acai must be tested in humans before drawing conclusions about whether and how it works in the body. Yet he thinks the results are encouraging: "Acai berries are one of the richest fruit sources of antioxidants."
Acai is especially high in antioxidant pigments called anthocyanins, which give the fruit its deep purple color. In general, anthocyanins are hefty health helpers, says Ronald E. Wrolstad, Ph.D., emeritus distinguished professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University. "They're effective against diabetes and ulcers, and have possible antiviral and antimicrobial activities. There is no question that these compounds are good for us."
Juice Up Your Diet
The acai fruit is still harvested by hand and deteriorates quickly after plucking, so it's commonly pasteurized as pulp and frozen before selling for exportation from Brazil. It's then made into drinks and smoothies in the United States. The berries are often blended with sugar or another sweetener, such as agave.
It's not known exactly how much acai juice is needed to reap health benefits. But, Wrolstad says, "We do know that if it's going to have a biological effect, we need to [consume] it regularly."
So go ahead and be adventurous. Add acai to a diet rich in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. It's still uncertain whether acai will give you specific protection against certain forms of cancer or other diseases. But at the very least, you'll get a hefty dose of nutrients—and exotic flavor to sigh for.