Superfruit ~ Acai Berry, Euterpe oleracea
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Goji berry has a long history of use in Chinese medicine. Click here to read about Goji Berry, Lycium barbarum. Açai berry is a more recent superfruit that many of us are just learning about.
Açai berries are harvested from Açai palm (Assai Palm) Euterpe oleracea, a fast growing palm that grows 30 to 40 feet tall and is hardy in USDA zones 10b to 11. Açai palm is abundant in the floodplains of the Amazon. Unless you live in Hawaii, Brazil, or other tropical areas, it is unlikely that you would have much luck trying to grow this Amazonian tree in your garden.
Açai palm requires consistently moist soil. Dave's Garden member and writer 'palmbob', from Tarzana, CA, had this to say about açai; "I have seen it growing in Hawaii and it is a beautiful species. There are many other species of Euterpe but all but one is too tropical to grow here. I have one growing just a few feet outside my office window, but it's a pitiful plant relative to Euterpe oleracea."
Berries from the açai palm are round, more like the size of a grape than a blueberry, with one large seed inside of each. Starting out green, they ripen to a deep purple.
The Power of Celebrities
Açai juices and products originated in Brazil. Here in the USA sales have skyrocketed for retailers and restaurants since the berry was mentioned on the Oprah Winfrey Show last year. In a NJ Wegman's grocery store, a department manager recently said to me that their freeze-dried Açai powder, which had been in stock for the past few years, is now suddenly out of stock, due to the increased demand.
Extremely popular on the West Coast and in Hawaii, its popularity is spreading; açai is even being used by chefs across the country in gourmet recipes such as açai sauces and açai sorbet.
Similar to figs, açai berries do not keep long; therefore it is unlikely that you would find fresh berries in your grocery market. Freeze-dried or frozen açai pulp, açai juice, and many different açai products are available in grocery and health food stores across the U.S., online and in restaurants, juice bars, health bars and coffee shops.
'Buyer beware' of many blended products being marketed with large print 'AÇAI' on the label, they may actually only contain a small fraction of açai. It is always a good idea to carefully read product labels. And be wary of claims such as, "you will lose weight" or "alleviates diabetes."
Açai is being used in products such as those marketed by the multimillion dollar, smoothie chain, Jamba Juice®, founded in 1990. Since December of 2007, Jamba, Inc. and Nestlé USA have engaged in an exclusive joint licensing agreement for a line of healthy beverages, including açai products, under the Jamba® brand name. Nestlé recently announced on their website that the product line, including smoothies and juices, is now available in eight states on the West Coast.
A favorite açai product is called an 'Açai Bowl' - well known in Brazil as 'açai in the bowl' (acai na tigela). Açai bowls vary, depending on where served. A typical recipe is frozen açai pulp (reconstituted with fruit juice or water) served over ice cream or yogurt, and topped with fresh bananas, strawberries or other fruit and granola. Toppings such as honey or bee pollen are often available too.
Honolulu Magazine voted for Lanikai Juice as the 2008 winner for 'Best Açai Bowl' in their Best of Honolulu contest. The winning Açai Extravaganza, "has organic apple juice, açai, organic banana, organic granola, and mixed berries," according to Pablo Gonzales of Lanikai Juice. He says they have had to work hard since 2001 to become the best seller of açai bowls, selling 12,000 to 15,000 a month in a single store.
Photo by DG member ‘Palmbob' showing colors
of crownshafts and flower spathes - a very colorful palm!
Lundkvist garden, Hawaii
Açai palms can be cultivated for their hearts of palm or for their berries. Since the recent increased global demand for açai berries, other closely related palm species, Euterpe edulis (jucara), are now more often used for the soft inner growing tip (hearts).
Although being touted as a superfruit, science based and reliable nutrient data on açai berry is still difficult for consumers to come by. As of the time of this article, similar to goji berries, açai berries still have not been added to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. The available nutrition data is mostly what is offered by companies that are selling açai products and its validity may be a concern to consumers.
Unbiased scientific studies in the USA have found freeze-dried açai to contain anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, along with other flavonoids as the major phytochemicals.
Phytochemical and nutrient analysis is most often conducted on freeze-dried açai pulp, since the berries quickly spoil due to their fat content. Most of the fatty acids in the berries are unsaturated (73.9%).
Photo credits: Acai Palm Photo Courtesy of Decio Horita Yokota: Wikimedia Commons:GNU Free Documentation License. Acai products Copyright Wind; Jamba Juice® storefront public domain image Wikipedia.
Special thanks to 'palmbob'; Junetta Mehl, Lois' Health Cupboard I; Pablo Gonzales, Lanikai Juice; and Kelly Tait.
Related Books: Sustainable Harvest and Marketing of Rain Forest Products By Mark Plotkin and Lisa Famolare
 Jamba, Inc. Business Wire 2007, Nestle USA and Jamba Juice Blend Their Expertise to Create Healthy Ready-to-Drink Products. Accessed Jan.17, 2009.
 About Nestlé USA, What's New at Nestlé. Accessed Jan.17, 2009.
, Wikipedia, Acai Palm. Accessed Jan. 17, 2009.
, Schauss AG, Wu X, Prior RL, Ou B, Patel D, Huang D, Kababick JP; Phytochemical and Nutrient Composition of the Freeze-Dried Amazonian Palm Berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart. (Acai), Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2006, 54, 8598-8603.