Move over, pomegranate.
Take a seat, mangosteen.
There’s a new “superfruit” in town and it’s called acai.
Pronounced ah-SIGH-ee, this Brazilian berry is being infused into seemingly everything, from juices and smoothies to cereal and nutrition bars.
And it’s no wonder. Acai is touted as having up to 30 times the antioxidant power of red wine, as well as large amounts of protein, amino acids, trace minerals, dietary fiber and phytosterols – all important in promoting cardiovascular, muscular and digestive health.
In fact, Dr. Nicholas Perricone, author of “The Perricone Promise: Look Younger – Live Longer in Three Easy Steps” (Grand Central Publishing, 2003), has called acai the No. 1 “superfood.” Other foods on his list of “Top 10 Superfoods” include barley, lentils, buckwheat, hot peppers and kefir.
“Acai contains high amounts of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories,” Perricone said via e-mail. “Both qualities maintain cell health.”
The acai berry is about the size of a blueberry but is tart and slightly chocolaty in flavor. It grows high atop Amazon palm trees and historically has been used in Brazil to treat digestive disorders and skin conditions.
U.S. studies are promising. A 2006 University of Florida study found that acai berries may destroy cancer cells.
According to Stephen Talcott, assistant professor with the university’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, extracts from acai berries triggered a self-destruct response in cultured human cancer cells. The response happened in 86 percent of leukemia cells tested.Talcott warned, however, that the study doesn’t prove that eating or drinking acai will prevent or cure cancer.
“This was a only a cell culture model, and we don’t want to give anyone false hope,” Talcott said in a statement. “We are encouraged by the findings, however. Compounds that show good activity against cancer cells in a model system are most likely to have beneficial effects in our bodies.”
The food industry has responded accordingly.
Leading the pack is California-based Sambazon, one of the first to publicly market acai products outside of Brazil.
Formed in 2001 by Southern California surfer Ryan Black and his brother Jeremy, Sambazon – which stands for Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon – is now responsible for about 80 percent of the acai imported into the United States.
Other companies have jumped on the bandwagon. Campbell Soup Co. recently released an acai blend of its V8 Fusion drinks; Haagen-Dazs has an Acai Berry Sorbet; and Luctor International, makers of Van Gogh Vodka, launched the first acai-flavored vodka in 2007.
Of course, nutritionists say acai is no panacea.
“It’s definitely a healthful food,” said Andrea Giancol, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “Is it a miracle cure? Probably not.”
The American Cancer Society recommends eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day to help prevent cancer. In general, those with the most color – green, red, yellow and orange – have the most nutrients.
“Any vegetable or fruit that scores high in antioxidants is going to be valuable,” said Carolyn Katzin, a nutritionist and spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. “There is no magic bullet. There is no magic food.”
There is one thing for sure: The growing popularity of the acai berry is good for the Amazon rain forest, since acai farming can provide a sustainable alternative to logging, cattle farming and other industries that cause deforestation.
Sambazon, for instance, buys its acai directly from farmers who, in turn, agree to designate part of their land as ecological reserves.
And the Los Angeles-based Bossa Nova acai beverage company recently teamed up with the Rainforest Alliance to preserve one Amazon tree for every bottle of acai sold.
… meet the other superfruits
What is it: An apple-size red fruit – the name comes from Latin “pomum” (apple) and “granatus” (seeded) – native to the Himalayas, pomegranates are a tart but sweet fruit containing clusters of small edible seeds.
>Sold as: Juices, whole fruits, seeds. >Benefits: Contains almost three times the antioxidant levels of green tea or red wine. Studies on mice and humans show pomegranates may help lower cholesterol.
>Sold as: Dried whole fruits, juice, powder..
>Benefits: High in amino acids and trace minerals, and a rich source of beta-carotene and vitamin C.
>Sold as: Whole fruit, juice, powder.
>Benefits: Rich in xanthones (highly potent antioxidants). Contains compounds said to have antifungal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.