One of the newly discovered berry â€œstarsâ€ of antioxidant plants is the acai (â€œah-sigh-eeâ€) palm berry (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) that comes from the tropical regions of Central and South America.
The genus is named after the muse Euterpe of Greek mythology and the major plant family is Arecaceae. The vernacular name is sometimes called Assai Palm.
Acai is well-known in the exotic functional food industry as a rich tasting, darkly pigmented (deep blue-purple) fruit whose delicious juice is either consumed from bottles or combined with yogurt and other health foods to create smoothies.
Where do acai palms grow and what are the characteristics of the berries?
According to Wikipedia, acai is a genus of 25-30 palm species native to tropical Central and South America, from Belize to Brazil and Peru. It grows mainly along rivers, in floodplains and swamps. They are tall, slender, attractive palms that grow 15-30 m tall, with pinnate leaves up to 3 m long. The fruit is a small, round, black-purple berry similar in size to a grape. They are produced in branched clusters of 700-900 fruits that must be picked by hand. Though its appearance is similar to that of a grape, the acai has a smaller amount of pulp and a single large seed about 7â€“10 mm in diameter.
What is it about the acai that has caught the attention of consumers?
Besides its deep blue color and delectable taste (hinting of chocolate), the preliminary analysis of nutrient content shows acai as one of the tropicâ€™s most nutritious fruits and certainly an exceptional source of antioxidant pigments.
What nutrients stand out in the acai berry?
Although the data has not been published or independently verified, the early research on acai shows it is rich in vitamins A, B and C, minerals (particularly iron and calcium), dietary fiber and proteins. It also contains an omega-3 fatty acid, a beta-sitosterol (a phytosterol that inhibits cholesterol formation in humans) and essential amino acids. Oleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid found in virgin olive oil, is especially rich in the acai.
What about the antioxidant strength of acai?
A manufacturer of acai products states on its website that acai has three times the antioxidant strength of blueberries and eight times that of strawberries. The likely source of such unusual antioxidant power would come from the dark blue pigments found in acai berry skin â€“ the large class of flavonoids called anthocyanins and particularly from two (cyanidin-3-glucoside and cyanidin-3-rutinoside), which are the main pigments isolated from acai.
What does medical research say about the health properties of acai?
As a relatively new discovery, acai has appeared in the online database of the US National Library of Medicineâ€”PubMedâ€”only since 2004. Since then, just five reports are listed (June 2006).
Three studies analyzed the antioxidant properties of acai, showing its powerful effects against specific oxidizing agents like peroxyl radicals and peroxynitrite. One interesting finding was that the total antioxidant capacity of acai could be accounted in just 10% of the identified anthocyanins. This finding indicates that acai is loaded with other, yet unidentified, antioxidant phytochemicals.
In 2006, a study performed at the University of Florida showed that acai antioxidants could induce more rapid death (apoptosis) of leukemia cells in vitro. This preliminary research indicates a possible anti-cancer effect of anthocyanins and other pigments, as shown for North American dark berries like the blueberry and black raspberry.
With research beginning to show remarkable benefits of acai, why not introduce this tasty berry into your diet?
* US National Library of Medicine, PubMed, http://pubmed.gov
* Acai Products, Sambazon, http://www.sambazon.com/acai.asp?pg=13
* Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acai
Copyright 2006 Berry Health Inc.