Acai Berries: Superfood or Superstition?

Acai Berries: Superfood or Superstition?

Natives of South American rainforests have used the acai berries as both a food source and medicine. It is now mass-produced in Brazil due to its popularity in the U.S. in trendy cafes as a beverage. The leaves of the acai palm tree (Euterpe oleracea) were to build homes, and the seeds of the reddish-purplish acai berries were dried to make necklaces and bracelets.

The "Superfood" Status of Acai Berries 

Acai berries (also called cabbage palm and palma manaca) are high in Vitamins A, C, and E, and naturally low in sugar. The nutritional value of acai berries also includes a high level of fiber and antioxidants, according to the website of the Mayo Clinic. Promotion of acai in the U.S. and western Europe as an anti-aging remedy and for weight loss began in the 1990s, and was touted by Dr. Nicholas Perricone on the Oprah Winfrey television program.  Marketers of acai for anti-aging and weight loss were sued by both Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Mehmet Oz in 2009 (according to an article on the ABC News website). 

Persons who consume a low anti-oxidant diet may be at higher risk of developing atherosclerosis than those with an adequate intake of anti-oxidants, but there is no evidence that a high antioxidant diet has the opposite effect (according to an article on the website of the Harvard School of Public Health).

There is no medical or scientific evidence that acai berries are a "superfood" or are useful for anti-aging, osteoarthritis, immunity, sexual dysfunction, or weight loss. Acai berries need to be processed within 24-48 hours of harvest to retain their nutritional value. However, sales of acai for its health benefits in the U.S. totaled $104 million in 2008 (per an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 18, 2009).

Production of Acai as an Industry in Brazil

The widespread cultivation of acai in Brazil is mainly in the area near Manaus (with a population of 1.5 million), northern Brazil in Belem, and the state of Para (with a population of 7.5 million). The estimated total production of acai in 2010 in Brazil was 480,000 tons per year—an increase from 91,021 tons in 1997 (according to the Indiana Food Review).

Large-scale production of acai is damaging the Amazon region, since the acai berries are often harvested by cutting down the entire tree (per an article in Conservation and Society [2(2):315-346; 2004].  It is also causing the price of acai berries to rise dramatically across Brazil—making acai less available for use by indigenous peoples who use it as food staple. Typically, acai berries are used as a pulp (and blended with manioc flour) to accompany fish or eggs as a meal. It has also been used traditionally to treat urinary tract infections and schistosomiasis.  

Contraindications for Consuming Acai

There are some people who are allergic to acai, and these individuals should avoid acai-based products. In addition, acai should not be consumed before taking a Magnetic Imaging Resonance (MRI), as this could affect the results of the MRI scan (according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine [NCCAM]).