It's been called a "super-food," a substance so heavily packed with nutrients and antioxidants it makes the nutritional output of other fruits and vegetables pale in comparison. And if you've done any web surfing in the last few months you've probably seen hundreds of ads touting the myriad health and diet benefits of the acai berry.
From aiding weight loss to making cancer cells self-destruct, the little acai (pronounced ah-sigh-a) seems to be an incredibly potent fruit. Even Oprah has touted the health and weight loss benefits of it. (Okay, maybe not such a great endorsement since she's blossomed back up to 200 pounds, but given Oprah's admissions about her weight issues I don't think we can blame it on the innocent little acai.)
So just what is the acai berry and how real are its claimed health benefits? Besides the weight loss and cancer-fighting properties attributed to it, the fruit also is touted to increase energy, boost your resistance to colds and flus, promote healthy and more youthful skin, improve eye sight and blood circulation and help slow the aging process.
And according to a 2005 study conducted by Amherst College in Northhampton, Mass., acai berries contain antioxidants, omega fats, amino acids, proteins, dietary fiber and essential minerals, such as iron, potassium, phosphorus and calcium.
That's a pretty incredible list of ingredients and health benefits for a fruit that's about the same size as its cousin, the blueberry. In fact, the acai is thought to have twice the antioxidants of the blueberry, and 10 times more than red grapes.
But before you run out and buy a bushel of them, here are some things you should know.
First, you won't find a bushel of acai berries anywhere, except perhaps in Brazil. That's because the fruit is largely grown there and it doesn't keep well, so it can't be transported fresh for very long distances, even in Brazil.
Secondly, while proponents of the acai make sweeping claims about its health powers, so far there's been limited research on it, though initial studies indicate the acai is pretty healthful. One study, conducted at the University of Florida in 2006, showed that the antioxidants in acai berries, when mixed with cultured human cancer cells, made the cancer cells die. The study's lead scientist, however, has cautioned that this study on lab cancer cells doesn't automatically mean that the berry can prevent or cure cancer in people.
Another study conducted at the same university has shown that the human body can extract the nutrients from acai derivatives. That test was important since many acai products sold in this country contain the fruit's juice or pulp.
But don't throw aside the pomegranates and blueberries, fruits considered to pack the biggest nutritional wallop, just yet. Nutritionists caution not to put all of your nutritional eggs in one basket. While the acai certainly appears to have benefits, eating a balanced diet that includes fresh fruits, not just extracts of one particular fruit, is still the smartest plan for overall health.
"Unfortunately, supplements are not the way to go," says Mary Ann Nash, a nutritionist at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital. "Our know-ledge of these phytochemicals suggests that there are tens of thousands, many unidentified, in whole foods. Singling out one antioxidant eliminates all the other phytochemicals that would be offered if the whole food was eaten."
And, she says, beware of all those websites selling acai products, particularly those that claim you can lose as much as 30 pounds in one month with the acai berry's help.
"The multi-level marketers would have you believe that the acai berry is the magic bullet," she says.
"Basically, there is no magic bullet."