We’ve all heard the name, and many of us have probably seen it on the menu board at Jamba Juice, on the label of blended designer juices at Whole Foods or on advertisements for natural weight-loss supplements. But what exactly is açaí, where does it come from and what is all the hype about?
Açaí (pronounced ah-sa-yeee) is a wild berry originally from the Amazon, naturally high in anti-oxidants, protein and omegas, and widely regarded as a ‘super-fruit’. The natives of the Amazon have presumably been eating these seemingly magical berries for as long as they have been inhabiting the lush rainforests of this region. And so over time, açaí berries have made their way into the everyday lives of the Brazilian public. Now an immensely popular on-the-go snack all around Brazil, açaí berries are generally served at juice bars, frozen and blended to order with guarana syrup added for sweetness. In fact, açaí berries are too bitter to eat without cutting the flavour with some kind of sweetening agent. The guarana not only adds sweetness, but it also contains high amounts of caffeine, making açaí seem to be an addictive snack. For breakfast, you can order açaí na Tigela (in a bowl) covered with toasted granola, or after training you can grab a quick one to go on your way home, served in a cup with a spoon standing straight up in the blended, dark purple (near-black), dense frozen treat. Açaí has a mixed reputation though, as aside from being high in anti-oxidants and protein, it is also known to be fattening. Developing an açaí-belly after years of consuming the tasty food is a common occurrence in Brazil.
(below) Acai berries in their natural state before their usual blending for a smoothie.
Although açaí is high in anti-oxidants much like other ‘super-fruits’ such as pomegranates and mangosteens, evidence showing that anti-oxidants are directly effective in preventing disease is still somewhat inconclusive, but all signs point to the fact that anti-oxidants can most likely help to fight against the free-radicals in our bodies that threaten to break down our DNA and give us cancers and other ailments. Evidence to show that açaí is effective as a weight-loss supplement is also inconclusive although it may be true, but given the fact that anti-oxidants generally lose potency after being processed into nutritional supplements and sitting for a time on store shelves, the likelihood is that the hype is a result of good marketing.
Each time I see açaí on the menu at juice bars in North America, I get excited to taste the unique, highly delicious and addictive flavour once again. But I am usually disappointed to find out that açaí is just one of the many ingredients included in a complicated jumble of other (presumably less expensive and more locally accessible) fruits. I have in fact found frozen, blended açaí pulp available in some very specialty health foods stores, but it is really not very common yet here in North America. I am convinced that given just how tasty and satisfying açaí is, we are going to start seeing more of it become readily available here, served just like they do at home in Brazil. Açaí is one of the best and most important elements of my Brazilian travel experiences, so I really do hope to be able to get an authentically prepared açaí in every juice bar. Hell, it’s not a bad business idea either; freshly-blended açaí pop-up shops in busy pedestrian areas and at outdoor festivals in the summertime. I know I would drop five bucks for a cup if I saw someone selling it!
Words by Naoyuki Da Silva