Thursday, October 14, 2010

Acai: A bitter berry with sweet results


Published: Sep 22, 2010 20:36 Updated: Sep 22, 2010 20:36

We have come to the end of the 20 superfruits (mangoes, figs, oranges, strawberries, goji berries (wolfberries), red grapes, cranberries, kiwis, papayas, blueberries, tarts and sweet cherries, red raspberries, seaberries (seabuckthorn), guavas, blackberries, blackcurrants, dates, pomegranates, acai berries and prunes) recommended by the “Berry Doctor,” Dr. Paul Gross. They were carefully selected for their plethora of nutrients and detoxifying phytochemicals.

To earn their superfruit titles, they had to undergo multiple scientific researches and human trials. In the last week of Ramadan, I chose to write about the prune instead of the acai berry as the former is a popular fruit during the fasting month. So, today, I shall go back and discuss the acai berry, a berry that is quite unknown to many in the Middle East, Asia and even the West. Moreover, it has a name that is difficult to enunciate accurately. It is written acai but pronounced “ah-sigh-ee.”

Acai, Euterpe oleracea, is a small berry of a bluish-purplish color that grows in clusters at the very top of tall palm trees. It is native of the rainforests of Brazil and Panama. The equatorial countries, which produce it, hold a tight obscurity around the berry in order to keep its propriety within their circles. The berry’s deep purple pigment, which gives acai its powerful anthocyanicins, changes significantly in color and degrades in nutrients and benefits immediately after harvesting, making handling, preserving and processing the berry a delicate and challenging job for the industry. That is why it is very important to go through the process in an efficient manner or consume the berry very fresh — the way the Amazon natives do — in order to have its full medicinal value. Acai is a small berry with one large pit, producing only 20 percent of its size in edible bitter pulp, available frozen in puree form. Its extreme bitterness makes the fruit difficult to swallow raw or fresh, but the natives enjoy the berry and its dense-nutrient, immune-boosting effects.

An efficient process of protecting the nutrients and phytochemicals of the acai berry (rapid freezing and processing, adequate storage and transportation) may maintain a good portion of its nutritious elements. When such steps are not taken properly, most of its nutrients can degrade considerably. The delicate procedure of exporting and the degradation of nutrients make it almost impossible to find or eat fresh. The cultivating countries also restrict exportation of the seeds to other countries, keeping it within closed walls. It is only exported in the form of powder or frozen to be added to juices and smoothies. The fresh acai and its freeze-dried powder have an usual combination of nutrients like protein, vitamin E, omega fats, and lignans as well as soluble fiber (the richest among plant foods), phytosterols, and beta-istosterol to reduce cholesterol. On the negative side, it contains a significant amount of palmitic acid — a saturated fat — and is also a high source of calories.

Acai’s abundance in polyphenols of different anthocyanins, proanthocyanins, cyaniding glycosides, and tannins makes it an attractive subject for scientific research. The freeze-dried powdered berry has scored high among fruits on the ORAC, oxygen radical absorbance capacity — a measuring scale for antioxidants. This resulted in a media and marketing hype. However, ORAC scores in the test-tube do not necessarily translate in the same way in the human body, plus the testing of different processed fruits is not identical in order to obtain an accurate comparison. Therefore, the excitement around acai should not be considered a final verdict. Because polyphenols (anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins, cyanidins and the many others) have promising disease-fighting and preventing characteristics, acai is being researched seriously to be used for infection, inflammation and cancer treatment. According to Gross, “Dr. Steve Talcott showed that growth of leukemia cells was inhibited” by anthocyanins and polyphenols in acai in test tubes. In more recent research, he also showed that acai suppressed colon cancer cell propagation. The same phytochemicals in red and black raspberries, cranberries and blue berries produced similar results too. Hopefully, scientific research intensifies in this area and others to lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular disorders and many other diseases.

Acai is found in the US and Europe in the forms of freeze-dried powder, frozen puree or pure juice. The pure juice is unpalatable because of its intense sourness and unattractive taste, which result from its low natural sugars and powerful phenolic acid. The bottled acai juice may not retain the same high nutritional value found in the fresh fruit as certain nutrients like monounsaturated fat (also found in olive oil), vitamin E and dietary fiber need to be removed to give the juice transparency. Consequently, the freeze-dried powder is the most appropriate choice available. However, I doubt any of its marketable forms are available in Saudi Arabia.

Acai powder can be added to juices, smoothies, yogurt, granola bars and cereals, and the frozen puree can be made into sorbets, jams, smoothies and ice creams. Furthermore, because of its low sugar, diabetics can also use it. It is worth adding the berry to your diet at least for health reasons. Very recent scientific evidence suggested that berries keep the brain young, prevent memory loss and protect against inflammation, oxidation damage and the effects of aging. Acai is among those powerful berries, which can rejuvenate the brain. The study also recommends fruits, vegetables, and nuts because of their powerful polyphenols. Since we have come to the last of the 20 superfruits, I must admit that I enjoyed sharing with you precious information about healthy fresh whole fruits. I would like to thank Dr. Paul Gross for emphasizing their importance for maintaining our health and preventing disease in a delicious and easy manner. One point I would like to stress is that all fruits are healthy. Because they are not created equal, I suggest you diversify your intake of fruits and vegetables. Each one provides different nutrients and phytocompounds, which complement the others. They are for you to enjoy!

N.B.: Individuals with medical conditions or on medication should consult their physicians when they decide to introduce anything new in their diet, even if it is natural.


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