Acai Berries - Are they worth it?
The acai berry is a small blackish-purple fruit is originated from the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforests. This fruit has been surfacing around the market as many studies have associated acai with numerous potential health benefits such as improving heart health, aid in weight loss, boosts your immune system, aids digestion, improve energy levels and so on.
It gained popularity especially in the US due to its outstanding nutritional content. The seeds do not hold high nutritional value, but the pulp and skin are full of vitamins and minerals. Many people also regard them as superfoods as they contain an exceptionally high antioxidant concentration as well as containing essential fatty acids.
The Acai berry is 90% seed, and only 10% of the berry edible. All research done is based on the berry skin and pulp.
Different forms of acai (juices, freeze-dried powder, smoothies, etc.) will have varying nutrient contents.
Based on research done on the acai composition in 2006,
100 grams of freeze-dried acai (fruit and skin) powder contains (1):
52 grams of carbohydrate
33 grams of total fat (74% of which is unsaturated fat)
8 grams of protein
100 grams of pure acai berries contain (2):
4 grams of carbohydrate
5 grams of fat
1 gram of protein
Acai fruit pulp and skin are a good source of:
omega-3 (alpha-linoleic acid)
omega-6 (Linoleic acid)
omega-9 fatty acids (oleic acid)
antioxidants (vitamin A, C, E, anthocyanins, carotenoids, flavonoid-like compounds, lignans, low levels of resveratrol)
plant sterols (mainly bet-sitosterol)
minerals (calcium, iron, manganese)
Anthocyanin compounds (3, 4):
Acai berries stand out from the rest of the fruits due to their high content of bioactive substances: antioxidants.
An overall antioxidant potency composite index of ready-to-drink polyphenol-rich antioxidant beverages (5).
The antioxidant capacity of fresh acai juice is ranked below that of pomegranate, blueberry and black grape juice is similar to that of cranberry and black cherry juice, but is greater than orange juice, apple juice and iced tea (6).
In liquid form, the acai berry loses antioxidant potency as compared with other fruits. Acai berry juices have lower antioxidant concentrations due to the fact that they are made up of blended acai extracts (parts of the fruit) and other juices.
Freeze-dried acai pulp and skin
Acai pulp and skin are packed with more antioxidants than other commonly eaten berries. The antioxidant effects of acai berries have largely been attributed to phenolic compounds. By freeze-drying acai berries, it helps to preserve the nutritional content that is found in the seeds and pulp.
Acai berry: 26000 ORAC units /100g
Acai Fruit pulp and skin: 102700 ORAC units /100g
Food Source ORAC units of µmol TE/100 grams. Acai berries contain twice as many as blueberries more antioxidant vitamins than blueberries (7).
The antioxidant potential is measured the by ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score. Most North Americans are taking in about 1200 ORAC units daily (8). Ideally, you need to aim for 3000-5000 ORAC units per day or more for health (9). The antioxidant capacity of freeze-dried acai pulp/skin powder is amongst one of the highest for any food tested, at 102700 ORAC units (10). Anthocyanin, one of the main antioxidant carries many health and anti-ageing benefits with its ability to neutralize free radicals in the body, combat tissue damage and strengthen the immune system that will be discussed below.
Free radicals are naturally produced in our bodies and environmental factors such as pollution, stress, cigarette smoke and toxins can further increase production. An overload of these chemicals, a phenomenon called oxidative stress, can damage the cells and organs by altering the structure of molecules in our body making us prone to chronic diseases and premature ageing. Antioxidants play a central role in neutralising free radicals which prevent further harm to our body (11).
Oxidative stress-induced diseases in humans
Chronic renal failure
IU growth restriction
Health Benefits of Acai
1. Cardiovascular Health
The antioxidants found in acai berry, anthocyanins, are excellent for heart health. Without it, free radicals can damage artery walls increasing the risk of cholesterol to be deposited and subsequently forming plaques. In addition, both anthocyanins extracts and essential fatty acids found in acai berries have shown to improved cholesterol levels by lower LDL cholesterol oxidation (aka bad cholesterol) and raise HDL cholesterol (aka good cholesterol) concentrations and thus reduce the risk of heart disease (12, 13, 14).
In one study done in overweight men, acai consumption was led to improvements in vascular function which may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (15).
2. Prevent Cancer
Acai berries may have anti-carcinogenic effects. This may probably due to its potential antioxidant action (16). Antioxidants can help fight off cancer cells and prevent damage to cells. They appear to switch off genes involved in abnormal cell proliferation and cell death. When acai was applied to leukaemia cancer cells, cell proliferation actually decreased (17). in addition to this, researchers have shown that ellagic acid present in acai berries also inhibit tumour growth and causes cancerous cell death (18).
However, researchers are divided on just what effect antioxidants have on cancer cells in the human body (19) because of the many other lifestyle factors that have to be factored into the equation (20).
3. Cognitive Function
Supplementation with acai pulp reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain of mice which could improve cognitive and motor functions (21). Oxidative stress and inflammation are associated with neurodegenerative diseases that compromise memory, learning, and movement such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neural disorders (22).
Essential fatty acids are responsible for several processes that can enhance neurotransmission and improve brain cell communication (23). High sources of these fats may be beneficial to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), boost learning capability and academic performance (24). As mentioned, 74% of the total fat of the fruit comes from unsaturated fat (omega-3, -6, -9) making it a great source of healthy fats in your diet (25).
4. Possible weight loss
Most acai products have been marketed for weight loss. Obesity, characterised by a state of low-level inflammation may possibly be combatted by potent antioxidants found in acai. However, it has not been proven effective for weight loss (26). Fibre in acai might aid weight loss as it can slows down digestion and may induce satiety. By feeling fuller, you are less likely to snack in between meals (27, 28).
5. Prevent premature ageing
Oxidative damage is believed to be one of the causative factors of ageing (29). The remarkable concentration of antioxidants in acai pulp allows free radical scavenging and promotes cell growth and thereby, suggesting anti-ageing properties. Research has shown that acai not only provides benefits due to its antioxidant scavenging ability but also suppresses biological processes that would degrade cellular integrity associated with ageing (30).
Oil extracted from acai berry with its high antioxidant properties is used for skin care and cosmetic products. These products are claimed to reduce irritation and redness and helps to moisturise the skin (31).
7. Assists in Digestion
The excellent source of fibre in acai can promote a healthy digestive system. Fibre can aid regular bowel movement, reduce constipation and other digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
8. Anti-inflammatory Properties
Acai is found to be a potential COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitor to imitate the anti-inflammatory, pain-killing effect in a similar way as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), though the effect is weaker (32).
Are they worth it?
Research on acai is really limited and claims about the health benefits of acai aren’t scientifically proven. Current studies are done mostly on animals and in vitro and results are mixed. Unfortunately, when a product becomes so hyped up, companies make outrageous claims such as “weight-loss, longer-life, and even improved sexual performance!” which all remains very doubtful (33).
When compared to other fruits, acai has some superior qualities (ORAC value) that makes them a superfood. But in my opinion, there are other fruits besides acai berries that provide antioxidants and other nutrients that are essential to your health. Plus an excessively high intake of antioxidants may actually have negative effects on the body (34).
These fruits are quite expensive as well as they must be freeze-dried to preserve all nutrients on the skin and pulp (note that only 10% of the entire berry is utilised as the seed does not contain any nutrients). Sometimes manufacturers only use only a small fraction of the acai berry and instead load the products with other fillers.
So if you're looking for a super nutritious food for weight loss and improve your overall health, I'd say there are other cheaper ways to do it. But if you enjoy the taste of acai, I'd say GO FOR IT!
It's never bad to try!
If you'd like to try acai, check your local health food — acai can be consumed raw, supplemented, in beverages such as juices and smoothies, added to dishes and so on. The taste of acai berries is a unique one and one that some people take some time to get accustomed to.
However, once you've tried it, you'll probably agree that their flavour is a delicious one. They've been described as tasting something like a combination of common berries like strawberries and raspberries, with a touch of cocoa. I really do enjoy my daily bowl of acai for breakfast and you could try to make your own dish!