Does Açaí Really Work — And If So, How?

Walk into any health food store or natural grocery nowadays and you’ll see a lot of displays featuring açaí. Bottles of açaí juice sell at over forty dollars each. Capsules of açaí extract are even more expensive. Videos about the wonders of açaí play throughout the store. Açaí distributors at outdoor markets sell bottles of açaí nectar and sign customers up as distributors. Açaí gets plenty of press in New Age catalogs. But what is açaí? Is it really a “superfood”? How does it work — and is it worth the money?

What Is Açaí?

The fruit of the açaí (pronounced asa-yi) palm is a familiar food in Brazil, as ordinary as grapes or apples in the U.S. In traditional societies it’s usually mashed, mixed with manioc and eaten for breakfast or dessert. Açaí juice mixed with sugar is also a common ingredient in wine, commercial fruit juices, soda pop and even ice cream.

The wood of the açaí palm tree has almost as many uses as bamboo. It’s considered a renewable resource and experts hope it can be used to regrow deforested areas of the Brazilian rain forest. The skin, seeds and roots are used to make traditional medicines. Açaí products are in very high demand all over the world.

Is Açaí A Superfood?

Superfood is a marketing term describing food that is naturally low-calorie and extremely high in nutritional value. Açaí berries contain vitamins, polyphenols and antioxidants in amounts roughly similar to cranberries. With this definition, açaí is not a superfood, but comes out just about average. The processed, pasteurized açaí juice you get at the health food store is even less “super”.

Advocates of colon cleansing promote açaí as a way of getting rid of toxic buildup in your intestines which can supposedly add years to your looks as well as pounds to your hips. Its high levels of antioxidants are said to erase wrinkles, age spots and sagging skin.

These claims have been made for many foods. In the 1950s, apple cider vinegar was supposed to be good for what ailed you. In the 1970s, it was brown rice and bean sprouts. Then it was royal jelly, making a comeback from the late Victorian era. As more is learned about vitamins, biophenols and antioxidants, other foods have been recommended. Most recently, pomegranate and blueberries have been in the spotlight.

None of these claims are false. Any actual food, as opposed to processed or fast food, is a healthier choice for your body and mind. But the key is to eat them fresh to receive their maximum benefit. Their nutrients are present in complex and interacting balances. Extracts in capsules or processed juices simply don’t have the same effect.

This is as true of açaí as it is of any other fruit. When açaí juice is packaged for export, it’s flash pasteurized, killing beneficial enzymes and bacteria along with potentially harmful ones. What you pay $40 a bottle for in your local health food store is not much better than commercial apple juice from a supermarket chain.

What about açaí as a miracle weight loss food, purging stored toxins from the body? Bluntly speaking, it gives you diarrhea. Many other foods and herbs do the same thing — probably more gently — for a fraction of the cost.

People in Brazil eat and drink a lot of açaí because it’s inexpensive and readily available. The high rate of açaí consumption in Brazil should mean that the locals are some of the healthiest and longest-lived people on earth, but there’s no evidence bearing that out.

End of the Açaí Wave?

Not surprisingly, a lot of health food waves are created by companies hawking their wares. In the case of açaí this was particularly egregious. Companies giving out “free samples” signed people up for enormous credit card charges. Oprah Winfrey’s lawyers have filed civil actions against forty companies for implying she endorsed their product.

People who run juice bars receive fewer requests for açaí and more for juices made from vegetables and dark leafy greens. And the “Mediterranean diet” is recommended by many doctors.

Try replacing fast and processed foods with salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, garlic, fresh fruits and dark chocolate. Drink organic fair trade coffee and green tea. No one food can supply everything, but these can help maintain heart health, keep your weight down and boost your immune system.

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