It’s almost impossible to visit a juice bar or smoothie cafe and not find acai (ah-sigh-EE) berries on the menu. The tart berries seem to be everywhere these days. Touted by many sources as a powerful health food that can tackle everything from weight loss to cancer, acai berries are often called a superfood. But are acai berries really a superfruit, and are the purported acai berry health benefits all they’re cracked up to be? Read on to find out.
Acai Berries: Nutrition Facts
Acai berries are small, dark purple drupes that grow in large clusters on the acai palm tree (Euterpe oleracea), which is native to the rainforests of Central and South America. While acai berries didn’t become popular in the United States until the 21st century—when they began to be touted as the “amazing Amazonian superfruit”—they’ve played a huge role in the diets of native peoples in and around the Amazon rainforest river delta for generations.
The dark berries, whose flavor is described as reminiscent of blackberries with dark chocolate overtones, are known for their combination of healthy fats and phytochemicals, especially polyphenols called anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins. These beneficial plant chemicals are actually what give acai berries their dark purple color. They’re also responsible for many of the health benefits that have been attributed to these popular Amazonian fruits.
Anthocyanins are known to possess powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties and have been found to protect the liver against injury, lower blood pressure, improve vision, and halt the proliferation of cancer cells.
Proanthocyanidins likewise possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antimicrobial properties and are known to increase capillary strength and prevent lipid oxidation—a known risk factor for heart disease.
Acai berries also contain dietary fiber, vitamin A, and 19 different amino acids as well as plant sterols, which can prevent the absorption of cholesterol in the GI tract, and the non-flavonoid polyphenol resveratrol—found in red wine—which has been found to stop the proliferation of cancer cells at all stages of growth.
What’s more, acai berries are a good source of several important essential fatty acids, especially oleic acid and palmitic acid, both of which are also found in olive oil.
In addition, acai berries have one of the highest ORAC values of any fruit, including blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and goji berries. The ORAC, or oxygen radical absorbance capacity, scale is used to measure the antioxidant properties of foods by assessing how well certain food samples are able to protect vulnerable molecules from oxidation by free radicals.
The more antioxidant capacity foods have, the more they can protect the body from oxidative damage, which is linked to inflammation and the development of chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Acai Berry Health Benefits
Based on the nutritional profile of acai berries, it’s easy to see how they might offer some important benefits. But what exactly does the science have to say about the health benefits of acai berries?
Heart Disease and Diabetes
A small study published in Nutrition Journal found that overweight adults who ingested 100 grams of acai pulp twice a day for 1 month experienced reductions in fasting blood sugar and insulin as well as total and LDL cholesterol levels, without side effects. These findings led researchers to conclude that acai berries may be useful in the fight against metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions that increases an individual’s risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Another small study published in the journal Biology of Sport found that young athletes who drank 100 milliliters of an acai berry juice blend each day for 6 weeks experienced a significant increase in antioxidant levels, a reduction in exercise-induced muscle damage, and a substantial improvement in lipid profile, findings that were attributed in large part to the polyphenols in acai berries.
And a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consumption of anthocyanins, like those found in acai berries, increases levels of HDL cholesterol—the so-called good cholesterol—and lowers levels of LDL cholesterol.
While multiple studies have demonstrated the potential anti-cancer benefits of anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, studies involving acai berries have only recently begun.
However, a study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that acai berries, as well as the bark and seeds of the acai palm, were effective in reducing the viability of breast cancer cells. And a rodent study in the journal Gut and Liver found that supplementation with acai powder exerted a protective effect against the development of colon cancer.
A number of recent studies have found a possible link between oxidative stress and the development of mental health disorders. And in an interesting study published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, researchers found that a freeze-dried extract of acai berries was effective in protecting neurons and reducing free radicals and lipid peroxidation—a destructive process in which lipids degrade after interacting with free radicals and cause damage to cells. These findings led researchers to conclude that acai could be useful in the treatment of neuropsychiatric diseases.
Another study published in the journal Neuroscience Letters found that acai berry extract was effective in inhibiting aggregation of beta-amyloid—protein fragments that are strongly associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
When it comes to the health benefits of acai, several studies have found evidence to suggest that the plant could offer significant hope for the millions of people suffering from diabetes or alcoholism, both of which carry a risk of liver damage.
For example, a study in the journal Food Research International found that adding acai seed flour to the meals of mice fed high-fat diets was successful in preventing fatty liver disease—a potentially life-threatening condition that affects up to a quarter of all adults in the United States.
These same findings were also seen in a study published in the journal Nutrición Hospitalaria, which found that supplementation with acai reduced the effects of fatty liver disease in rats fed a diet high in fructose. What’s more, acai supplementation was found to increase levels of the master antioxidant glutathione and reduce numbers of inflammatory cells.
In addition, a study in the journal Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi found that acai berries exerted a significant protective effect on liver cells exposed to excessive amounts of alcohol.
A study in the journal Microbial Pathogenesis found that acai pulp extract was effective against Staphylococcus aureus and its biofilms. This is a potentially important finding, as S. aureus is quite common and often difficult to treat. Moreover, when bacteria form biofilms—a thick layer of bacteria surrounded by a protective coating of lipids, proteins, polysaccharides, and nucleic acids—they become even more resistant to treatment.
Acai Berries and Weight Loss
While the dietary fiber, healthy fats, and phytochemicals in acai berries are certainly good for you, and studies have shown that acai berries may reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels, there’s no proof that eating acai will lead to dramatic weight loss.
Yet, as acai berries rose to popularity in the West so, too, did manufacturers of acai products promising massive weight loss. In fact, so many companies began flooding the market with outlandish health claims that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began cracking down.
So if you’re hoping acai berries will be your magic weight-loss bullet, we’re sorry to burst your bubble. But that’s not to say that acai berries or acai powder added to a healthy diet and exercise plan won’t boost your overall health while you lose weight the old-fashioned way—especially when you consider all those wonderfully healthy phytochemicals.
So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and break out those acai bowls, whip up an acai smoothie, treat yourself to some acai juice, or toss some fresh acai berries in your favorite breakfast cereal today!