Acai- Magic or Myth
Acai Berry is a fruit of the palm Euterpe oleracea, so I thought it would be a good topic for me to address, since palms are my primary area of interest (outside of my line of work and all the other plant areas of interest of mine). The goal of this article was to introduce the reader to a popular palm species and some of its widely popular uses. However, once I began to do research the topic of Acai, I quickly realized it was a very controversial subject here at Dave's Garden; see Diana Wind’s article “Superfruit- Acai Berry, Euterpe oleracea."
About the Plant:
Euterpe oleracea is a suckering, tropical palm from Central and South America. It is not an endangered species, and in fact, it is grown in massive numbers, primarily in Brazil. It is a relatively tall, slender palm growing up to 90 feet tall or more, though the tallest plants I have seen in cultivation were more like 30 to 50 feet in height. It’s common name is Asai, Assai, Acai, Cabbage Palm or Pina Palm. Acai is a Portuguese word that means fruit that cries or expels water. That is a bit of an odd name as the fruits of this palm, though somewhat juicy, are 95% seed matter. There are far juicier palm fruits out there in the jungles.
Euterpe oleraceas growing in botanical gardens in Hawaii
It is a beautiful palm with a dark purplish to nearly black crown shaft, some color in the new leaf spikes, and long, arching elegant pinnate leaves adorned with closely spaced, long, thin drooping leaflets that give the palm and overall wispy, weeping appearance. Most plants have multiple canes (trunks) of various heights that arise out of a relatively small base and growing outwardly in all directions creating a nice tropical, ornamental silhouette. Nearly all the Euterpe species (7 total) are ornamental, with a few being absolutely spectacular palms.
Newly uncovered crownshaft of Euterpe oleracea (left), and plant showing ornamental pendant leaflets (right)
Some Other Euterpe Species:
Euterpe precatoria (a variegated version) showing beautiful silhouette and nice, elongaed crownshaft
One of the most striking of all tropical palms, Euterpe catatinga with its ornamental orange crownshaft
Euterpe oleracea has a very high need for water and does not tolerate drought well. Nor does it have much cold or cool tolerance being impossible to grow outdoors in California even in the best of microclimates, though growing easily in south Florida and Hawaii. It does not tend to produce much fruit while young, but it is a relatively fast growing species and begins to produce large numbers of small dark purple berries, with up to nearly 1000 fruits per infructescence, at maturity.
Euterpe oleracea inflorescence, though early and no fruit formed yet
Many palm and acai berry enthusiasts in the U.S. have asked if this would be a good greenhouse plant for production of acai fruit. To my best estimation, this would be a very poor choice for greenhouse culture primarily due to its extreme height and fastidious tropical requirements. I have no idea how long it would take to grow to maturity in a greenhouse, nor how practical building a greenhouse that tall would be, as well of having no idea how easily fruit would be produced in a greenhouse (and at what height). Then, how difficult that fruit, if any, would be to collect. All that makes me pessimistic as to the financial practicality of this sort of endeavor.
Uses of the Acai Palm:
Before it became a commercial success, Acai Palms were used primarily for consumption of their hearts of palm, and this is probably the palm’s second largest international success. As a renewable resource, Euterpe oleracea is a suckering palm so harvesting of its heart (new growth- hence killing the cane) does not result in the death of the plant, even if all the canes are harvested (most of the time, new suckers will emerge). Most hearts of palm sold throughout the world are probably still of this species though sadly Euterpe edulis, a non-suckering species, is rapidly taking its place thanks the economic importance of the Acai Palm’s fruit crop. Euterpe oleracea leaves are used for all sorts of things (as are most palm leaves in tropical areas) such as roof thatch, basket production, mats, hats and other clothing. The trunks are used for construction and may become, someday, an important source of mineral production. Reportedly there are at least 22 uses for this species of palm.
Euterpe edulis palms growing in Hawaii... this species is taking the brunt of the palm cabbage industry as Euterpe oleracea plantations are being used more for berry production. Unfortrunately the collection of palm heart from this solitary species results in death of the palm, making it much less practical of a renewalbe resource.
lizard woven from palm leaves
Uses of Acai fruit:
Acai berries are blueberry-sized palm fruits with a relatively large seed within each one. They are reddish-purple and reportedly have a slightly sweet flavor (most palm fruits in my experience do not taste as good as the native populations make them sound). The fruits are used for eating, making juice, pulp, alcohol, ice cream, medicines (diabetes, cancer, virility, skin ulcers, hair loss, menstrual pain, malaria etc.), cattle feed, cosmetic production as well as a nutritional product and commercial weight loss gimmick.
Euterpe precatoria fruits, but identical to those of the Acai Palm (left); seed of this palm, which is nearly exactly the same size as the fruit, demonstrating how little fruit there is in each berry (right photo)
For more details about the weight-loss controversy, particularly those involving Oprah Winfrey, read the Wikipedia article about Acai.
In summary, at least one company claiming that Acai consumption would lead to weight loss used Oprah as a source, without permission. All studies on this product and its weight loss qualities have not shown any to be true to date, and are now pretty much accepted as hype. However there is still no lack of Internet sites promoting Acai products as weight loss magic.
There is no doubt these fruits (along with most berry fruits) are a good source of B Vitamins, fiber and minerals, though these berries also have some omega-3 fatty acids and protein (a miniscule amount compared to something like fish, though). One source claims these berries have a lot of Vitamin B11, a vitamin I had not heard of . After a bit of research, turns out this is a form of folic acid and is now included under Vitamin B9, or all the folates (very common compound in many, many other food stuffs, too, by the way) and is not usually listed separately as a real vitamin.
As for its more widely touted antioxidant effect, most of those appear to be rather questionable as well. It cannot be denied the berries have multiple antioxidant compounds in them, but the amounts and activity of such compounds appears to have been repeatedly exaggerated. Depending the source you Google, you might read that Acai berries have 30x the antioxidants over red wine, and are higher than all other berries. None have any scientific basis, though. Most ‘real’ studies cited by Wikipedia (see above link) on these properties conclude that Acai berries are no more loaded with antioxidants than many commonly available fruits and are, in fact, inferior to several very common ones (blueberries, mangos, grapes, strawberries etc.). And the usefulness of such antioxidants itself is still quite in doubt. The ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) for Acai Berries, often touted as being astronomical, are actually well below the common pomegranate, though no one seems to have come up with an exact value, yet.
Acai pulp from the berries and served in Brazil. This is basically the purified product and might be incredibly nutritious in this form, but rarely, if ever, does one encounter Acai offered in this form commercially. Photo Wikipedia
Another point often brought up, often by competing Acai product manufacturers, is that most products that contain Acai rarely say how much Acai there is actually in their product, and in what form it’s in. A smoothie with a gram of Acai berry juice is unlikely to have sufficient antioxidant in it to realistically affect our metabolism and health in any way I suspect. Eating purified Acai pulp may indeed provide a significant amount of antioxidant and other nutritional benefits, but one rarely finds Acai in this form. And I have no idea if purified Acai is even palatable, though the native Amazon tribes people seem to eat a lot of it (though possibly because it is available, not necessarily for health reasons).
extracting juice from berries (left)- photo Wikipedia; right is granular unfiltered product I managed to find at local health food store
If you search the internet for Acai nutrition, you are hit with an onslaught of references to Acai Nutrition ‘Facts’ (over 200,000 hits with this inquiry), most which list very different claims and statistics, but all which are published by companies which either sell Acai products or have questionable scientific backing.
As if that wasn’t controversy enough, it seems the rage over Acai products has created a number of scam companies who not only make the outrageous medicinal and nutritional claims, but send free samples and then repeatedly charge ones credit card monthly.
And on top of that controversy, is the controversy of product quality, with some reputedly honest companies constantly warning against getting impure, or filtered, or unpasteurized, or diluted or sweetened, or simply ‘bad’ products, which reportedly the majority of products on the market currently fit these descriptions.
Sure enough, I sought out Acai products at some of my local grocers and was confronted with an astounding variety and number of products containing the ‘magical’ acai berry. Many of these had added sugar (which is pretty much as anti-antioxidant as you can get… though my guess is Acai sans sugar probably does not taste that great- even the local Amazon tribes eat theirs with sugar), blended with other fruits (pure Acai products were much harder to find) with little to no information on how much Acai was actually in the products, were filtered, were not organic (not that really should make much of a difference), were not certified (not sure how that is essential, either, but sounds good), have preservatives (though again I don’t see how these are necessarily a problem and probably a good thing, though holistic types are generally opposed to anything called a preservative), and in plastic bottles (and therefore likely to contain plastic leeched products).
Anyway, at this time there at least does not appear to be any dangers with Acai fruits. So whether you believe the hype or not, it is a billion dollar industry and it seems to be a good income for Brazilians, and possibly a way to keep the rainforests from being burned to the ground as rapidly.
I bought a product that claimed to be unfiltered, containing pulp, was organic and sold in a glass bottle. It did, however, contain plenty of sugar. After tasting this somewhat granular product, I was pleasantly surprised it did not taste horrible, but it certainly will not be among my favorite juice flavors. And I am very glad there was some sugar in there, too. I am sure any sugar easily outweighs any benefits of whatever functional antioxidants contained within… but at least a little will not kill me… right? And I’m getting some ‘Vitamin B11’ at the same time!
One of the few products I found that was nearly 100% unfiltered juice (plus lots of cane sugar and some natural caffeine product) - left; right is color of this juice