Rainforest Superfoods: The Açai Story

Once in a while, a "new" food is introduced to the western world that causes a bit of a stir.
By Brooke Holmgren

The Amazon Rainforest is home to millions of beautiful and unique animals and plants. Often called “the lungs of the planet,” the Amazon Rainforest is just about as large as the continental United States. Not only is this region pleasing to the senses in its grandeur, a vast majority of plant substances from the Amazon are used in important medications and supplements across the globe to alleviate symptoms and/or treat AIDS, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes, to name a few.

Ten years ago, not many people knew what açai was, let alone how to pronounce it. But thanks to the potent nutrients hidden inside this tiny fruit, chances are that the word “açai” won’t be leaving the western vocabulary or supermarket anytime soon.

 

What It Is

The açai berry is bigger than an average blueberry, but smaller than a grape. With a dark purple and reddish hue, the flesh surrounds a seed that makes up more than half the size of the whole fruit. While açai may look like and be referred to as a berry, it’s actually a drupe, placing it in the same family as cherries, nectarines, peaches, and plums.

It grows on branches at the top of a tall slender palm tree that typically reaches 20 meters in height with leaves three meters in length. Each tree produces two bunches of fruit a year with 500-900 berries hanging from the branches.

Since the fruit deteriorates rapidly both nutritionally and physically, açai is not sold as a whole fruit in North America. Oftentimes it is dried and ground into a fine powder to be used in a supplemental capsule, or frozen as pulp.

 

History

While the açai berry may be a relatively new food for people in North America, açai berries have been around for thousands of years and have been harvested from the Euterpe oleracea palm tree in the Amazonian region of South America for just as long; the palm tree grows in Central America as well. Indigenous peoples have used this fruit for both food and traditional medicinal purposes because of açai’s potent anti-inflammatory properties.

 

Nutrition and Health Benefits

The main reason açai has earned the moniker “superfood” is because of its high Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) rating. According to Zach Adelman, president and co-founder of Navitas Naturals, the USDA recommends anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 ORAC units per day. On average, açai berries contain 600 to 700 ORAC units per 5 to 7 gram serving.

Simply put, açai is chock full of antioxidants, especially anthocyanins, which give the fruit its anti-inflammatory punch. Anthocyanins are flavonoids, which act as antioxidants, commonly found in dark, purple-colored fruits and plants. In fact, anthocyanins are what give purple-hued plants their color. It just so happens that açai contains several times more anthocyanins than other purple foods.

While all antioxidants are good for the body, anthocyanins are particularly powerful. Inflammation (which anthocyanins work against) is a common culprit for numerous ailments from allergies to arthritis. Anthocyanins neutralize irritated and damaged tissue within the body, especially within the blood vessels.

Oxidative stress, or repeated assault on the body’s cells by environmental toxins and free radicals, can severely affect the body, and in particular, the brain. Simply put, oxidative stress triggers neurological disease within the brain—anthocyanins protect against this damage.

In addition to repairing cellular damage, anthocyanins have been linked to improved eyesight in diabetics with retinopathy due to strengthening capillaries and inhibiting overproduction of abnormal proteins. Eating foods rich in anthocyanins reduces and theoretically repairs damage caused by free radicals.

Açai contains good fats such as monounsaturated fat, which is known to lower blood cholesterol levels, and omega-3, -6, and -9 essential fatty acids. Açai also boasts high fiber content and uniquely has almost no sugar.

Something you should watch for as a consumer is the amount of açai in smoothies or beverages—the less fat per serving, the fewer açai berries there are in that beverage. Açai isn’t regulated the way other fruit juices are; there can be one berry per 8-ounce serving and that company can call it “açai” juice. According to Sambazon, whole açai juice should contain 3 grams of fat per 8-ounce serving.

 

Transport

Açai berries travel a long way from the Amazon to the United States. The nutritional value can be compromised on this journey, so companies who import açai had to develop a way to transport these berries.

Jeremy Black, co-founder of Sambazon, a company that makes açai smoothies, beverages, and sorbet, explained to Natural Solutions how açai finds its way from the Amazon Rainforest into your nearest supermarket.

“One of the cornerstones of what we do with Sambazon is that we built a vertical supply chain… we have a strict quality control policy. The locals bring in the berries, we inspect them and approve [the fruit] that meets our standards, and then we flash-pasteurize the fruit, which is required by the USDA for bringing fruit juice into the United States." The fruit is then flash-frozen and shipped to North America.

Navitas Naturals takes a similar route in bringing its açai powder into the US. Adelman states that “açai berries are particularly sensitive. They can lose a lot of nutritional value and can go rancid within 24 hours of harvest.” Therefore, freeze-drying or flash-freezing açai is currently the best method available to preserve the nutritional content and taste of the fruit. The opposite is true of spray-dried açai.

Spray-dried açai is regarded as inferior to freeze-dried. As with all nutrients, to be heated to a high temperature diminishes the nutritional potency, and that’s exactly what happens with spray-dried açai.

Jeremy Black considers heat the enemy of açai. "When [Sambazon] looked at açai powder that was spray-dried, it was light pink. When we looked at the freeze-dried [açai], it was dark purple. It was pretty obvious which one had the most nutrition. When we tested the antioxidant values in the spray-dried açai, it didn’t even have 1/20th of the antioxidants [of freeze-dried açai].”

In spray-drying, the fruit is heated to high temperatures in order to eliminate moisture from within the fruit. Not only does this method eliminate water, it drastically reduces nutritional and fat content. After they’re dried, the açai is in a powdered form; maltodextrin is often added as a carrying agent.

 

Environmental Impact

The Amazon’s unique ecosystem relies heavily on each of its parts; if the trees are cut down, the plants lining the forest floor cannot survive, nor can the animals or insects that inhabit the forest. Yet deforestation continues for several reasons; to clear land for agricultural crops, to graze cattle, to sell lumber for construction across the world, and to clear land for development.

You would think that purchasing a product made from Amazonian fruits would only contribute to rainforest exploitation, yet the opposite is true. Purchasing frozen or powdered açai that is certified organic and/or certified Fair Trade is more likely to support a company that practices environmental sustainability than a company who does not. For example, Sambazon was able to certify over two million acres of rainforest as containing wild and organic açai palm trees. As Sambazon only sources berries from farmers who gather berries from land that is certified organic, the process ensures that the trees exist in a wild, biologically diverse environment that does not disrupt the natural order of the rainforest.

As a result, indigenous people have a reason to protect their land from clear-cutting styles of development and agriculture. They support their families and themselves through harvesting açai in a natural environment that embraces the delicate diversity of plants and animals. Local harvesters climb the açai tree and cut off a small branch that contains hundreds of açai. Every tree contains a few of these fruitful branches, and they regenerate in about a year, making this form of harvesting sustainable—and that’s good for all of us.