If you’ve watched television lately, you may have seen one of the many ads promoting various brands of açaí berry juice. While this “perfect potion” is new to the United States, it has been familiar in other parts of the world for hundreds of years.

Açaí (a-sigh-ee) palm trees are members of the genus Euterpe and grow mostly in Central and South American rain forests. The fruit is a dietary staple in the Amazon region, where various species are used in herbal remedies for diarrhea, jaundice, fever, skin ulcers, and tonics to enrich the blood. Euterpe oleracea is the variety that’s causing all the buzz.1

Background

A classic palm, the açaí tree grows as tall as 80 feet. Its multiple long, thin trunks have branches near the top that support long, ribbonlike leaves. Dangling from the branches are clusters of three to eight deep-purple berries—so dark that they look almost black. Each berry is about the size of a blueberry and is composed of a small amount of pulp surrounding a large seed.1

Açaí berries debuted on the global market about seven years ago. Because they are very fragile, until recently most berries were used locally within a day or two of picking. But several local companies now process them for global distribution.2

Scientific evidence

One hundred grams (3.5 ounces) of the standard, freeze-dried powder made from açaí berry pulp and skin contains 533.9 calories, 52.2 g carbohydrate, 44.2 g dietary fiber, 8.1 g protein, and 32.5 g total fat.3 While few people consume a serving so large, it is easy to see how a small amount of this nutrient-dense fruit could be very beneficial.

Chemical analysis finds açaí juice to be an excellent source of essential fatty acids, fiber, and antioxidants. The National Institute on Aging has developed oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) values to measure the antioxidant capacity of various foods.4 With a rating of 161,400 units/100 g, açaí has the highest ORAC value of any food tested to date and is 10-30 times more powerful than red wine by volume.5

This rich antioxidant activity has spurred intense research into açaí’s potential for preventing numerous diseases.  A University of Florida study showed that açaí extract triggered a self-destruct response in up to 86% of leukemia cells in vitro.6 In a rat study at the University of  Rio de Janeiro, açaí extract induced long-lasting endothelium-dependent vasodilatation, which is strongly linked to improved cardiovascular function.7

Meanwhile, in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial, 12 healthy volunteers ingested a standardized açaí extract. When serum antioxidant levels were sampled one and two hours later, the concentrations had definitely increased at each interval.8 

Other touted and likely physiologic results from this berry are increased energy, improved mental clarity, improved GI function, better glycemic control for diabetic patients, improved cholesterol balance, and a slowing of cellular aging. All these benefits have yet to be proven, but other high-antioxidant products are credited with these effects.

Açaí may have another clinical benefit that’s not directly related to nutrition. A study now under way is looking at açaí extract as a substitute for gadolinium contrast agents in MRI exams of the GI tract. In earlier research, açaí berry pulp was found to have a definite increased T1-weighted MRI signal in vivo, revealing a significant contrast on bowel walls and gastric tissue. Further analysis linked this to spectrophotometric detection of iron, magnesium, and copper ions.9