Açai, a palm tree native to Central and South America, produces reddish-purple berries that are similar to blueberries and cranberries. Bearing a rich, chocolate-like flavor, açai berries have recently popped up in scads of nutritional supplements and juices (other popular antioxidants include goji berry, maqui berry, mangosteen, camu camu and tart cherries).
In Brazil, native people use açai berries to heal skin conditions and sip açai seed tea to soothe fever. Native Brazilians have also long used boiled preparations of açai root to treat conditions ranging from menstrual pain to diabetes.
Benefits of Açai
In recent years, supplement manufacturers have begun marketing açai as a top source of antioxidants (substances that help protect cells from free radical damage). In fact, 53 new açai-containing products were introduced in the United States in 2008. That same year, sales of products with açai as the main ingredient surpassed $106 million.
Açai proponents claim that the “superfruit” offers 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes and delivers a remarkable synergy of amino acids, essential fatty acids, and fiber. According to açai advocates, the fruit’s nutritional profile qualifies açai as a powerful defense against heart disease, cancer, digestive problems, allergies, and autoimmune disorders. Some supplement manufacturers also suggest that açai promotes weight loss.
The Science on Açai
Although research has proven that açai is indeed high in antioxidants, very few studies have tested the fruit’s effects on humans. Among those human-based studies is a 2008 trial including only 12 people; the key finding was that açai can, in fact, be absorbed by the human body when consumed as juice or pulp.
In test tube studies, meanwhile, scientists have shown that çai extracts can trigger cancer-cell death and lower inflammation. However, until human studies can replicate these findings, açai shouldn’t be considered a surefire cancer-fighter or anti-inflammatory agent.
Other Foods High in Antioxidants
By following a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods, you can greatly boost your antioxidant intake with food without relying on insufficiently studied supplements.
Find out the best food sources of antioxidants.
Due to a lack of research, little is known about the safety of using açai supplements. It’s important to keep in mind that supplements haven’t been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. In some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances such as metals. Also, the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. Consider further reading on using supplements.
Using Açai for Health
Due to the limited research, it’s too soon to recommend açai supplements as a treatment for any condition. It’s also important to note that self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences. If you’re considering using açai supplements for any health purpose, make sure to consult your physician first.