Açaí bowls are trending around the country and with that, they are claiming a wide range of nutritional benefits. I’m all for consuming nutrients, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve been thinking… how do they get this berry from the Amazon to my local cafe without losing any of these nutritional claims? That’s a long way for a humble berry and if you know anything about preserving foods nutritional content, that’s a long way for all those vitamins and minerals to be led astray. So, as I always do, I decided to investigate… “Are Açaí bowls healthy?”… The results may surprise you!
WHAT IS ACAI?
Açaí would have to be up there as one of the most mispronounced super-foods on the planet (followed closely by Quinoa and Cacao). For all those wondering it’s pronounced “ah-sah-EE” not ah-kai or anything in between 🙂
The Açaí berry is a berry from Brazil and is produced by a palm tree commonly found on the floodplains of the Amazon River. The tree is scientifically known as Euterpe Oleracea.
When ripe, the berries are dark purple and about the size of a blueberry. They contain a thin layer of edible pulp (5%) surrounding a large seed (95%). I’ll admit this shocked me a little, that’s a whole lot of seed! The pulp is extracted, processed and transported here to Australia for us to enjoy usually as an Açaí bowl or Açaí berry smoothie.
WHAT IS AN ACAI BOWL?
An Açaí bowl (pictured) is basically a really thick Açaí smoothie (Açaí berries blended with frozen banana, coconut milk or almond milk to get the right texture), poured into a bowl and topped with oats, granola, fruit, nuts and/or seeds. Because of it’s thicker consistency, it’s meant to be eaten with a spoon.
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF ACAI?
Historically, Brazilians have used Açaí berries (NOTE: not Acai Bowls) to treat digestive disorders and skin conditions. Today, the known benefits of Açaí berries include:
- A high level of antioxidant activity (similar to cranberries)
- One of the highest Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) among fruits and vegetables (the higher the ORAC number, the greater the antioxidant properties of the food)
- They contain a great source of iron, calcium, fibre and vitamin A
- They also contain resveratrol, cyaniding and ferulic acid, which team up with flavonoids to defend the body against harmful free radicals.
- They also contain beneficial fatty acids such as oleic acid, one of the same oils found in olive oil
HOW IS ACAI PROCESSED?
Açaí berries are extremely perishable and according to a number of sources, they can lose their health benefits within 24 hours once picked. For this reason, Açaí berries need to be immediately processed into a pulp after harvest by soaking in water and removing the seeds to form a puree. The puree is either then freeze dried or flash pasteurised and frozen, before being transported out of the Amazon. If left unprocessed, the fruit will oxidise, turn brown, and it will lose its beneficial nutrients.
Does flash pasteurisation destroy the health benefits? This is the question I have been asking for awhile now, but unfortunately the answer isn’t as simple as I might have liked.
We all know pasteurisation destroys nutrients and heat sensitive enzymes (Vit A, E, D, K, Niacin, Riboflavin, Biotin, Flavin and some antioxidants) so is the Açaí pulp transported to Australia all it’s cracked up to be?
According to Amafruits Açaí producers (UPDATE 16 FEB 2018, AMA FRUITS HAVE SINCE REMOVED THIS PAGE), apparently none of their Açaí antioxidants, omega fats and fibre suffers any appreciable reduction from pasteurisation (there is no evidence to support this claim, so I’ll have to take their word for it). However, I’m not sure how much an appreciable reduction actually is? I guess it’s open to interpretation.
What I do know is that likelihood of heat sensitive enzymes being destroyed in the in the pasteurisation process is quite high so, as you can imagine I’m a little sceptical.
Is freeze-dried Açaí better? Again, the research on this information is limited however one study conducted on freeze dried vs. frozen strawberries revealed that the level of antioxidants in freeze-dried berries was significantly higher than frozen berries.
IS ACAI A ‘SUPERFOOD’?
There are a lot of claims out there regarding the health benefits of the Açaí berry but unfortunately, not many of them are clinically proven, so let’s take away the positives….
Açaí berries in their raw fresh form, contain many benefits, such as powerful antioxidants, fibre, healthy fats, iron, calcium, fibre, vitamin A, and more. It is these nutrients in isolation that have been clinically proven to be beneficial for health. Whether or not these still exist once pasteurisation has taken place, I’m not sure, but what I do know is that enjoying an Açaí bowl every once in awhile won’t kill you, it’s a possibility that you might salvage some of those heat sensitive enzymes (wink wink) and it’s much better option than a lot of ice-creams and smoothies out there (just watch the sweetener).
BUT BE MINDFUL… Using the food miles calculator, Brazil is 14,052km from Australia (as the crow flies). Acai isn’t exactly a “local” food and as such, I recommend “food miles” be kept in mind.