The açaí palm (Portuguese: [asaˈi] ( listen), from Tupi-Guarani asaí), Euterpe oleracea, is a species of palm tree (Arecaceae) cultivated for its fruit (açaí berries or simply açaí), hearts of palm (a vegetable), leaves and trunk wood. Global demand for the fruit expanded rapidly in the 21st century and so the tree is cultivated for that purpose primarily.
Euterpe oleracea is mostly native to Brazil, Trinidad and other nations of northern South America, mainly in swamps and floodplains. Açaí palms are tall, slender trees growing to more than 25 m (82 ft) tall, with pinnate leaves up to 3 m (9.8 ft) long. The fruit is small, round, and black-purple in color and may be sold as a frozen fruit puree or bottled juice drink with added sugar.
The common name comes from the Portuguese adaptation of the Tupian word ïwaca'i, meaning "[fruit that] cries or expels water". The importance of the fruit as a staple food in the Amazon River delta gives rise to the local legend of how the plant got its name. The folklore says that chief Itaqui ordered all newborns put to death owing to a period of famine. When his own daughter gave birth and the child was sacrificed, she cried and died beneath a newly sprouted tree. The tree fed the tribe and was called açaí because that was the daughter's name (Iaçá) spelled backwards.
The fruit, commonly known as açaí berry or açaí, is a small, round, black-purple drupe about 25 mm (1 in) in circumference, similar in appearance to a grape, but smaller and with less pulp and produced in branched panicles of 500 to 900 fruits. The exocarp of the ripe fruits is a deep purple color, or green, depending on the kind of açaí and its maturity. The mesocarp is pulpy and thin, with a consistent thickness of 1 mm (0.04 in) or less. It surrounds the voluminous and hard endocarp, which contains a single large seed about 7–10 mm (0.3–0.4 in) in diameter. The seed makes up about 60-80% of the fruit. The palm bears fruit year round but the berry cannot be harvested during the rainy season.
Like a combination of a grape and a blueberry, the small, reddish-purple fruit is low in sugar, but high in dietary fiber. The berries also contain anthocyanin compounds and fatty acids like oleic acid. But because of the sugar, they should be consumed in moderation.
A powdered preparation of freeze-dried açaí fruit pulp and skin was reported to contain (per 100 g of dry powder) 533.9 calories, 52.2 g carbohydrates, 8.1 g protein, and 32.5 g total fat. The carbohydrate portion included 44.2 g of dietary fiber and low sugar value (pulp is not sweet). The powder was also shown to contain (per 100 g): negligible vitamin C, 260 mg calcium, 4.4 mg iron, and 1002 U vitamin A, as well as aspartic acid and glutamic acid; the amino acid content was 7.59% of total dry weight (versus 8.1% protein).
A comparatave analysis from in vitro studies reported that açaí has intermediate polyphenol content relative to 11 varieties of frozen juice pulps, scoring lower than acerola, mango, strawberry, and grapes. The extent to which polyphenols as dietary antioxidants may promote health is unknown, as no credible evidence indicates any antioxidant role for polyphenols in vivo.
When three commercially available juice mixes, containing unspecified percentages of açaí juice, were compared for in vitro antioxidant capacity against red wine, tea, six types of pure fruit juice, and pomegranate juice, the average antioxidant capacity ranked lower than that of pomegranate juice, Concord grape juice, blueberry juice, and red wine. The average was roughly equivalent to that of black cherry or cranberry juice, and was higher than that of orange juice, apple juice, and tea.
The medical watchdog website Quackwatch said that "açaí juice has only middling levels of antioxidants — less than that of Concord grape, blueberry, and black cherry juices, but more than cranberry, orange, and apple juices."
The anthocyanins of açaí likely have relevance to antioxidant capacity only in the plant's natural defense mechanisms, and in vitro. Anthocyanins in açaí accounted for only about 10% of the overall antioxidant capacity in vitro. The Linus Pauling Institute and European Food Safety Authority state that dietary anthocyanins and other flavonoids have little or no direct antioxidant food value following digestion. But unlike controlled test tube conditions, in vivo anthocyanins have been shown to be poorly conserved (less than 5%), and most of what is absorbed exists as chemically modified metabolites destined for rapid excretion.
A powdered preparation of freeze-dried açaí fruit pulp and skin was shown to contain cyanidin 3-O-glucoside and cyanidin 3-O-rutinoside as major anthocyanins (3.19 mg/g). The powdered preparation was also reported to contain twelve flavonoid-like compounds, including homoorientin, orientin, taxifolin deoxyhexose, isovitexin, scoparin, as well as proanthocyanidins (12.89 mg/g), and low levels of resveratrol (1.1 μg/g).
There are two harvests: one is normally between January and June, while the other is between August and December. The last harvest is the most important.
- 'Branco' is a rare variety local to the Amazon estuary in which the berries do not change color, but remain green when ripe. This is believed to be due to a recessive gene since only about 30% of 'Branco' palm seeds mature to express this trait. It has less iron and fewer antioxidants, but more oil, and many believe it to have a superior taste and digestibility to purple açaí.
- 'BRS-Para Dwarf' was developed by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Agency. It grows much shorter, to 5 to 7 metres (16 to 23 ft) tall, fruits sooner (3 years from seed), and produces a larger seed yielding 25% more fruit pulp than wild açaí.
Açaí was little known outside the Amazon delta communities where it had been eaten as a staple for centuries. In the 1970s people from that region began moving north to the Brazilian cities of Macapá and Belém, and it started to be imported there and sold at roadside stands. In the 1980s the Brazilian Gracie family started using it to train fighters in their gyms, and marketed their gyms with claims that açaí was an energy drink. Their marketing carried it to beaches of Rio de Janeiro where surfers and others consumed it at beach stands, often with granola and bananas; this demand led to the building of cottage industries and processing plants to pulp and freeze açaí to send to those regions. In the 1990s it became popular throughout Brazil. Exports of frozen pulp to Rio de Janeiro went from two tons a month in 1992 to 830 tons by 2000.
Expansion beyond Brazil
In the early 2000s SoCal brothers Ryan and Jeremy Black and their friend Edmund Nichols started a company, Sambazon, to import açaí into the US, after two of them had tried it on a trip to Brazil. They tried to get Whole Foods and other retail chains to buy it, who all refused, so they at first sold it door to door to juice bars in the Los Angeles region as an energy drink with high antioxidants; then they began selling it through Equinox gyms in New York City and juice bars in Miami.
In 2003 they sold it at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and celebrities tried it, and later that year Nicholas Perricone included it as a "superfood" in one of his diet books, and then talked about it on the Dr Oz show and Oprah. This caused Sambazon's business to grow very quickly, and around that time they built their own processing plant near Macapá, which they tried to run on a fair trade model.
At that time many other companies tried to capitalize on the surge in popularity. These companies introduced açaí products in the US and internationally. There were large companies like Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo, many small players, a multilevel marketing company called MonaVie, and an internet scam company with many shells called Central Coast Nutraceuticals, that flooded the internet with ads, many of them with counterfeit testimonials and counterfeit açaí products. By 2009 açaí scams were ranked #1 on the US FTC's "scams and rip-offs" list, so that by 2011 sales of açaí flattened as the fad waned.
Açaí was promoted heavily for its antioxidants, and many false claims were and are made, including a reversal of diabetes and other chronic illnesses, as well as expanding size of the penis and increasing men's sexual virility. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) thousands of consumers have had trouble stopping recurrent charges on their credit cards when they cancel free trials of some açai-based products. Even some websites purporting to warn about açai-related scams are themselves perpetrating scams.
By 2011, Ralph Carson, the formulator of MonaVie, cautioned the public that the product was in fact nothing more than "expensive flavored water” and that any claims made about it were “purely hypothetical, unsubstantiated and, quite frankly, bogus".
The FTC handed down an $80 million judgement in January 2012 against five companies that were marketing açaí berry supplements with fraudulent claims that their products promoted weight loss and prevented colon cancer. One company, Central Coast Nutraceuticals, was ordered to pay a $1.5 million settlement.
As a food product
Fresh açaí has been consumed as a dietary staple in the region around the Amazon river delta for centuries. The fruit is processed into pulp for supply to food product manufacturers or retailers, sold as frozen pulp, juice, or an ingredient in various products from beverages, including grain alcohol, smoothies, foods, cosmetics and supplements. In Brazil, it is commonly eaten as açaí na tigela.
In a study of three traditional Caboclo populations in the Brazilian Amazon, açaí palm was described as the most important plant species because the fruit makes up a major component of their diet, up to 42% of the total food intake by weight.
As of 2015, there are no scientifically controlled studies providing proof of any health benefits from consuming açaí. No açaí products have been evaluated by the FDA, and their efficacy is doubtful. Specifically, there is no scientific evidence that açaí consumption affects body weight, promotes weight loss or has any positive health effect.
The oil compartments in açaí fruit contain polyphenols such as procyanidin oligomers and vanillic acid, syringic acid, p-hydroxybenzoic acid, protocatechuic acid, and ferulic acid, which were shown to degrade substantially during storage or exposure to heat. Although these compounds are under study for potential health effects, there remains no substantial evidence that açaí polyphenols have any effect in humans. Açaí oil is green in color, has a bland aroma, and is high in oleic and palmitic fatty acids.
Leaves of the palm may be made into hats, mats, baskets, brooms and roof thatch for homes, and trunk wood, resistant to pests, for building construction. Tree trunks may be processed to yield dietary minerals.
Comprising 80% of the fruit mass, açaí seeds may be ground for livestock food or as a component of organic soil for plants. Planted seeds are used for new palm tree stock, which, under the right growing conditions, can require months to form seedlings. Seeds may become waste in landfills or used as fuel for producing bricks.
Orally administered açaí has been tested as a contrast agent for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the gastrointestinal system. Its anthocyanins have also been characterized for stability as a natural food coloring agent.
A grove of açaí palms in Brazil
- Açaí bowl
- Açaí oil
- Euterpe edulis
- Euterpe precatoria
- Enforcement actions against açaí berry supplement manufacturers
- Sambazon, Inc. – a company from San Clemente, California
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