Acai, a palm tree native to Central and South America, produces reddish-purple berries that are similar to blueberries and cranberries. Bearing a rich, chocolate-like flavor, acai berries have recently popped up in scads of nutritional supplements and juices (other popular antioxidants include goji berry, noni juice, mangosteen, camu camu and tart cherries).
In Brazil, native people use acai berries to heal skin conditions and sip acai seed tea to soothe fever. Native Brazilians have also long used boiled preparations of acai root to treat conditions ranging from menstrual pain to diabetes.
Benefits of Acai
In recent years, supplement manufacturers have begun marketing acai as a top source of antioxidants (substances that help protect cells from free radical damage). In fact, 53 new acai-containing products were introduced in the United States in 2008. That same year, sales of products with acai as the main ingredient surpassed $106 million.
Acai proponents claim that the "superfruit" offers 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes and delivers a remarkable synergy of amino acids, essential fatty acids, and fiber. According to acai advocates, the fruit's nutritional profile qualifies acai as a powerful defense against heart disease, cancer, digestive problems, allergies, and autoimmune disorders. Some supplement manufacturers also suggest that acai promotes weight loss.
The Science on Acai
Although research has proven that acai is indeed high in antioxidants, very few studies have tested the fruit's effects on humans. Among those human-based studies is a 2008 trial including only 12 people; the key finding was that acai can in fact be absorbed by the human body when consumed as juice or pulp.
In test tube studies, meanwhile, scientists have shown that acai extracts can trigger cancer-cell death and lower inflammation. However, until human studies can replicate these findings, acai shouldn't be considered a surefire cancer-fighter or anti-inflammatory agent.
Other Foods High in Antioxidants
By following a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods, you can greatly boost your antioxidant intake with food without relying on insufficiently studied supplements.
Find out the best food sources of antioxidants.
Del Pozo-Insfran D, Percival SS, Talcott ST. "Açai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) polyphenolics in their glycoside and aglycone forms induce apoptosis of HL-60 leukemia cells." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2006 22;54(4):1222-9.
Mertens-Talcott SU, Rios J, Jilma-Stohlawetz P, Pacheco-Palencia LA, Meibohm B, Talcott ST, Derendorf H. "Pharmacokinetics of anthocyanins and antioxidant effects after the consumption of anthocyanin-rich acai juice and pulp (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) in human healthy volunteers." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2008 10;56(17):7796-802.
Schauss AG, Wu X, Prior RL, Ou B, Huang D, Owens J, Agarwal A, Jensen GS, Hart AN, Shanbrom E. "Antioxidant capacity and other bioactivities of the freeze-dried Amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart. (acai)." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2006 1;54(22):8604-10.