Açaí (pronounced ah-sah-EE) berry is the drupe, or fruit, of the açaí palm tree (Euterpe oleracea), a species of palm native to Central and South America. The name of the plant is the Portuguese form of its name in the Tupi language—a word that means “fruit that cries water.” At one time the açaí palm was cultivated primarily for hearts of palm, a vegetable obtained from the inner core and growing bud of the tree. Since the early 2000s, however, the açaí palm has been cultivated primarily for its fruit while closely related species of palm are grown for hearts of palm.
Other names for açaí berry include açaí palm, Amazon açaí fruit, assai, assai palm, baie de palmier pinot, cabbage palm, chou palmiste, and palmier d'açaí.
Açaí berries are a traditional food for the indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest; the berries were also used by the tribespeople to treat diarrhea. In Canada and the United States, the berries are most often sold in health food stores or specialty supermarkets as frozen pulp or used in juices and juice products, smoothie mixes, jellies, ice cream, liqueurs, and similar fruit-flavored products. Açaí berries may be blended with other fruits or berries in these products or used as the sole flavoring.
Açaí berries are also used in the manufacture of dietary supplements that include liquid tonics, tablets, shake mixes, and snack bars. These products claim to produce health benefits ranging from weight loss and boosting of the immune system to diabetes management and increased virility in men. However, no scientific studies provide any proof of these claims.
There were four clinical trials of açaí berries registered with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as of 2018: one study evaluated the effects of the berries when added to a high-antioxidant diet to slow the effects of aging; a second study concerned the effects of açaí in lowering risk factors for atherosclerosis; the third study recruited subjects for a study of the effectiveness of açaí in treating men with high levels of prostate-specific antigen; and the fourth study evaluated a high-fiber product that contained açaí berries as a treatment for constipation. Açaí berries have been used as an ingredient in some skin care products, as the plant oils contained in the berries appear to be beneficial in reducing inflammation and hyperpigmentation. Açaí ihas also been used in a pilot study as a possible treatment for metabolic syndrome, a condition that is often a precursor of type 2 diabetes, but the authors of the pilot study recommended further study to replicate their tentative findings.
The açaí berry itself is a small, round, blackish-purple fruit about an inch in diameter that grows in branched clusters of 500–900 fruits under the fronds of the açaí palm, a slender species of palm tree that ranges from 45 to 90 feet in height. Its dark color is caused by anthocyanins, a class of flavonoids or plant pigments. The berries resemble grapes in size and general shape but contain much less pulp; the seed of the açaí berry comprises about 80% of the fruit. Açaí berries are not naturally sweet.
The most common brands of açaí berry products sold in the United States and Canada are marketed by Sambazon and MonaVie. The latter company, which also markets its products in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Hungary, Japan, Israel, Singapore, Austria, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Thailand, and Taiwan, has been subjected to enforcement actions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States for exaggerated health claims made about its products.
Sambazon primarily sells bottled juices, smoothie mixes, energy drinks, sorbet, and the freeze-dried powder. Its products include combinations of açaí berries and cranberries, pomegranates, and other fruits as well as pure açaí products. Although Sambazon describes açaí as a “superfood,” it does not claim that its products will speed up weight loss, cure the common cold, or reverse the aging process.
As of 2018, neither the FDA nor any other government regulatory agency had evaluated açaí berries as a foodstuff. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) considers açaí to be as healthful as other fruits such as strawberries or blueberries, and safe to eat, but not as exceptional as it is made out to be in mass-market advertising.
There is no particular recommended dosage for açaí berry products used in so-called functional foods or nutraceuticals in combination with other ingredients, including other fruits or fruit flavorings. The Sambazon freeze-dried açaí berry supplement recommends adding one “scoop” or 0.11 oz. (3 g), to “your favorite smoothie, juice or milk.” There is not enough scientific information to provide guidance on appropriate dosages of açaí as a dietary supplement.
Açaí berries used in beverages, smoothies, and similar products appear to be safe for most people to eat; a toxicology report published in 2010 found nothing harmful in the fruit itself. Because the berries are acidic like most other fruits, consumers who have gastric ulcers or recurrent problems with heartburn should be careful not to ingest them together with NSAIDs like aspirin or ibuprofen. Until açaí dietary supplements have been evaluated for safety, they should not be used by children and women who are pregnant or lactating.
Other açaí berry products have been found by the FDA to be mislabeled. In one case, a man developed rhabdomyolysis (a muscle disorder) after taking a product labeled as an açaí berry dietary supplement. Chemical analysis revealed that the product did not contain any açaí. In an October 2011 case, the FDA issued a public warning about an açaí berry product, Açaí Berry Soft Gel ABC, which contained sibutramine, a controlled substance removed from the market in 2010 for safety reasons. Sibutramine raises blood pressure and pulse rate and thus poses a risk to people with high blood pressure, heart disease, or a history of stroke. The FDA issued the statement “to inform the public of a growing trend of products marketed as dietary supplements or conventional foods with hidden drugs and chemicals.”
Credit card scams involving açaí berry products first came to media attention in 2009, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a warning about Web-based açaí scams. The scams promise consumers a “free” trial of açaí products provided the customer pays a $5.95 shipping and handling fee, for which a credit card number must be supplied. The company then continues to charge the customer each month for a shipment of the product, and customers who try to cancel the shipments have difficulty stopping the recurrent charges. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has specifically given “F” ratings to such companies as FX Supplements, which markets Açaí Berry Maxx; Advanced Wellness Research, which sells Pure Açaí Berry Pro and Açaí Burn; and SFL Nutrition.
Some people believe that consuming açaí berries will negate the effects of an unhealthy diet. This is not true, and eating açaí berries or using açaí berry products does not replace the need to consume a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, many of which are cheaper than açaí.
No serious side effects have been reported for açaí berry functional foods and flavored beverages. The case of rhabdomyolysis concerned a patient who had used a dietary supplement mislabeled as containing açaí when none was present in the product.
Little information is available on interactions between açaí berries and other drugs. People taking pain medications or cancer drugs should check with their doctor before using açaí, however, as it may lower their effectiveness. It is a good idea for adults to check with their doctor before adding açaí products to their diet.
See also Dietary supplements ; Vitamins .
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Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 South Riverside Plz., Ste. 2000, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (312) 899-0040, (800) 877-1600, email@example.com, http://www.eatright.org .
Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1220 L St. NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC, 20005, (202) 332-9110, Fax: (202) 265-4954, http://www.cspinet.org .
Center for Science in the Public Interest (Canada), Ste. 2701, CTTC Bldg., 1125 Colonel By Dr., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1S 5R1, (613) 244-7337, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.cspinet.org .
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 10903 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, MD, 20993-0002, (888) INFO-FDA (463-6332), http://www.fda.gov .
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD