Summer 2011

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1. They cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound. Nor will they flatten your tummy, cleanse your colon, boost your immune system or increase your virility. Society seems to like superstars, and acai (ah-sigh-EE), along with the pomegranate, is one of our reigning fruit superstars. The exotic Brazilian berry’s meteoric rise to fame would probably be better analyzed by a marketing specialist than a fruit specialist as most of the media attention has been due to aggressive marketing campaigns making unfounded claims about its powers. That said, this little berry does appear to pack a punch. Studies are showing that acai, similar to other berries, is a good source of antioxidants, fatty acids, essential nutrients and fiber.

2 . The plant wears many hats in its native land. The berries come from the multi-stemmed palm Euterpe oleracea Mart., which grows in the eastern Amazon estuary and on floodplains. This palm is an important part of the local diet for both the fruit and the palm heart. The fruit not only is eaten for enjoyment, but also is used as a traditional medicine for its anti-diarrheal properties. Palm leaves are made into hats, baskets and thatched roofs, and the wood is used for construction.

3 . Distant countries are just discovering it. Until recently, consumption of acai fruit has been restricted to regions where it is grown due to its very short post-harvest lifespan. However, refrigerated transport and freeze-drying technology have made the fruit more readily available. The fruit is a round grape-sized drupe that is green when immature and ripens to a dark purple color. Some types known as “white acai” are still green at the mature stage. The fruit is typically consumed by locals as a drink by macerating the edible pulp and adding water.

4 . Works like a blueberry, tastes like a beet. Kind of. The composition of the acai berry is still being studied in order to understand its full capacity as a “functional food.” Studies have shown that the berry is high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid, and has high levels of antioxidant capacity against some types of cell-damaging free radicals. The proanthocyanidins (one group of antioxidant compounds) found in the acai berry are very similar to those of the blueberry. Acai has a unique flavor that has been described as “metallic,” “slightly nutty,” “somewhat creamy” or, to put it in more familiar terms, like a beet or carrot but with a slight odor. Many acai products are made with freeze-dried powder.

5. Beware of food fads. The benefits of fruits and vegetables are due to hundreds and sometimes thousands of compounds including essential nutrients, fiber, fatty acids and antioxidants, just to name a few. It’s highly unlikely that there is a fruit out there that can out-perform your mother’s strategy of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. If it sounds too good to be true—it probably is.

Rebecca Harbut is a professor in the CALS Department of Horticulture and a fruit crops specialist with UW Extension.

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