"I've been eating açai since I was about 7 years old," says Rodrigo Bosco. "I would get a bowl of it at a juice bar near my school at lunchtime." Back then, in the mid-1980s, he was a native of Rio de Janeiro and witnessed the birth of an extraordinary nutritional phenomenon.
Açai (pronounced "a-sigh-eeh") had been a dietary staple in the Amazon rainforests of northern Brazil for centuries; however, due to its extremely short shelf life (the nutrients perish in less than 24 hours after harvesting), it wasn't available outside that region. Things changed when the Gracie family, founders and legendary masters of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, opened an academy in Rio and brought the fruit, in the form of frozen pulp, to the city.
"Then other athletes, surfers, cyclists, and people who liked a healthy lifestyle started eating açai," recalls Bosco. The fruit became a staple in the many juice bars of Rio, and its popularity grew from there. In 2000, açai landed in North America and has found its way into many juices, foods, beauty products, and dietary supplements.
Antioxidants fight internal rusting, so to speak, and açai delivers more than any other fruit or vegetable. By testing blood, researchers at Texas A&M University, whose study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, found that açai juice raised blood antioxidant levels by 2.3 times, and pulp tripled them.
Other human trials, published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, found that açai reduces inflammation, relieving joint pain in people with fibromyalgia and other autoimmune diseases. Animal research has found additional benefits: At the USDA's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, researchers found that açai protects the brain against aging and neurological diseases. And a study at the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health, found that the fruit may reduce damage from high-fat meals and extend lifespan.
Tradition and Innovation
A dark purple berry that grows 30 to 50 feet above ground on very skinny palm trees, açai looks somewhat like a grape, but more than 95 percent of it is a large seed surrounded by a thin layer of skin. After being harvested, the berries are soaked, and the skin is removed and made into a pulp. Amazon natives mix the pulp with water to make juice. But to be shipped outside its native growing regions, the pure pulp has to be frozen within hours of harvesting, or it can be freeze-dried into powder.
In Brazil, it's most popular in bowls: Frozen açai pulp is blended with just a little juice or coconut water and perhaps some other frozen fruit, with syrup or honey as an option. Unlike a typical American smoothie or milkshake, the mixture is the consistency of soft ice cream-too thick to drink, with or without a straw-and is eaten with a spoon.
The delicious Brazilian-style concoction delivers the most complete form of açai, with healthful fats (including omega-3s), fiber, loads of antioxidants, a variety of vitamins and minerals, and amino acids.
Make Your Own Bowl
Bosco, who now lives in San Diego and is part of the team at Açai Roots, a company that brings açai to the United States, offers these tips for making traditional bowls:
- Keep a variety of frozen fruit in your freezer. Slice and freeze bananas, all kinds of melons, apples, pears, oranges, and any other fruit you enjoy.
- For each bowl, combine one or two packets of pure frozen açai pulp (3.5 ounces per packet) and a few slices of one or more other frozen fruits with a little juice, coconut water, or "milk" of your choice, such as soy, almond or hemp, and blend to the consistency of soft ice cream. For easier blending, break up the frozen açai.
- Frozen banana slices, apple juice, and/or a touch of agave syrup or honey will add sweetness.
- Scoop the contents into a bowl and top with a sprinkling of fresh (unfrozen) fruit and/or granola. Enjoy!
- Protein powder can also be blended in with pulp. And açai pulp, powder, or juice can be added to salad dressings, sauces (after cooking, to retain nutrients), puddings, and cake toppings. For recipes, visit açai roots.com, sambazon.com, and navitasnaturals.com.
Açai is available in a variety of forms:
- Pulp, either pure açai or with sweetener and/or other fruit
- Pure açai juice (should contain 3 g of fat per 8-ounce serving)
- Juice blends
- Powder (look for one freeze-dried without heat)
- Smoothies, premixed and ready to drink
- Elixir with added botanical ingredients
- Energy drinks
Country life liquid Goji & Açai is an all-in-one superfruit product with no added sugar. In addition to açai, the formula has goji, noni, mangosteen, and other antioxidant-rich fruit concentrates. Yum!
Nature's answer Liquid platinum acai supreme contains a whopping 4,000 mg of açai per serving. Sweetened with agave nectar, this concentrate makes a delicious addition to smoothies or juice.
Only natural acai capsules give you the option of convenience-all you need are one to two capsules daily for a full serving of pure açai powder. And, of course, not everyone enjoys the taste of açai (which makes capsules perfect).