All About Acai: Bowls, Benefits & Recipes
What is Acai? Health Benefits, Where to Find It, & Acai Recipes!
It’s one of the trendiest foods right now, and one of the hardest to pronounce: açaí (ah-sigh-EE)! You’ve probably seen the vibrant purple acai bowls that are taking over the internet lately, or heard about how SUPER of a food acai can be. Oprah Winfrey endorsed acai, it’s used in loads of weight loss supplements, and it’s even referred to as “the miracle fruit.” With about a billion acai bowl recipes out there, it must be some kind of wonderful…
But what is acai? Does it taste as good as it looks? And is acai as healthy as the internet makes it out to be? I’ve got loads of info about acai and tasty acai recipes for you—check it out!
What is Acai?
Acai is a small, round fruit (about 1 inch around) that has a dark, purple-black skin. It’s often compared to a cross between a grape and a blueberry, but it’s a bit smaller and not so sweet. Acai grows on acai palm trees, which are native to Brazil, Trinidad, and some northern parts of South America. The fruits sprout in big clusters on the palms’ branches, changing from green to deep purple as they ripen. Harvesters in Brazil’s Amazonian rainforests—where most acai in the world is grown—climb all the way up the 80-foot acai palms to collect the fruit! They break off a branch, slide their hand down it to take off the berries, and can harvest up to 55 pounds of acai from just one branch.
Though acai is also known as the “acai berry”, it’s technically not a berry—it’s a drupe! A drupe is a fruit with a pit, like an apricot, and acai has a large seed inside of it that makes up about 60-80% of the fruit. That means a only pretty small portion of the fruit (the flesh) is edible. The edible flesh and skin of acai is generally blended up into a purée to be eaten or used in recipes. Hence, the acai bowl craze! Acai is very nutrient dense and, unlike most other fruits, it’s surprisingly low in sugar. This is why acai has a more tangy, earthy flavor, that’s often compared to a mix between blackberries and unsweetened chocolate.
Because it’s is so low in sugar (and acid), which typically helps to protect fruits from spoiling, acai is very perishable and has a short shelf life. So, unfortunately, don’t expect to find whole acai berries in your grocery store. The fruit would go bad during the transport. Outside of areas where acai is native, acai can only be found as a frozen fruit puree, a dried powder, or a pressed juice. These options certainly can’t be the same as raw, fresh acai, but they still offer us a chance to taste acai and reap some of the health benefits!
Acai is loaded with tons of nutrients. It’s also pretty unique as a fruit, being extremely low in sugar and relatively high in healthy fats:
Per 100g frozen acai pulp/puree:
- CALORIES: 70
- FAT: 5g
- SATURATED FAT: 5g
- CARBS: 4g
- SUGAR: 2g
- FIBER: 2g
- VITAMIN A: 15% DV
- CALCIUM: 2%
Acai also offers plenty more vitamins and minerals, like B vitamins, chromium, zinc, copper, manganese, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus. The high fiber content in acai can help with healthy digestion, while also helping us to feel fuller for longer. Acai has a low glycemic load and sugar content, so it won’t cause major blood sugar spikes. And, it’s full of healthy fats, which make acai and acai bowls great sources of energy! Acai offers nutritious, wholesome saturated fats, as well as unsaturated fats: some of all three omega-3-6-9 fatty acids. It’s especially rich in monounsaturated fats (omega-9s), like those we find in olive oil!
Acai is often promoted as an ingredient in expensive weight loss supplements, but be wary of these products! Some studies suggest that acai may help suppress appetite and improve our metabolism, but conclusions can’t yet be drawn. There just aren’t enough studies out there that have researched acai’s potential to help with weight loss. And, many of those weight loss products are deceiving, with just a tiny amount of acai but loads of sugar and fillers.
The major nutritional benefit of acai that sets it apart from other fruits is its amazingly high antioxidant content! Antioxidants are plant compounds that neutralize free radicals in the body. Free radicals can enter our body in many ways, like from a poor diet, chemical contaminants, environmental pollution, or high UV exposure. If they’re not neutralized, free radicals go on to damage our cells (a.k.a. oxidative stress), which leads to things like the aging of our skin, pains in the body, as well as diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Acai has one of the highest ORAC scores (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) of any food, which means it’s one of the top foods in terms of antioxidant content by weight. Though blueberries and cranberries are often praised as ‘antioxidant superfoods,’ acai actually has more antioxidants by weight than either of them! In particular, acai is rich in anthocyanins, a class of antioxidant which gives acai and other foods their reddish-purple coloration. And, anthocyanins can do some pretty amazing work in our bodies:
- Anti-Inflammatory—acai’s protective antioxidants, in combination with its monounsaturated fats, fight off inflammation in our bodies! This can lower our risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Plus, anthocyanins also have shown some effectiveness at balancing cholesterol in research studies.
- Cellular Health—the antioxidants in acai help our bodies remain more resilient against the oxidative stress caused by free radicals, and protect our cells from degrading!
- Slowing Signs of Aging—that oxidative stress in our bodies is what leads to signs of aging, like dark spots, wrinkles, sagginess, discoloration, etc. Antioxidants like those in acai help the body to repair our damaged skin cells faster!
- Improve Brain Function—inflammation and oxidation are two major causes of cognitive problems, especially as we age, but acai’s antioxidants can help preserve memory and learning abilities! Acai can turn off inflammatory pathways that damage our brain’s nerve signals, and it can help the brain clean up cells that are toxic or no longer working.
- Cancer Prevention?—acai has been linked to cancer prevention in some animal and lab studies, both stopping cancer cells from forming and spreading. But, there’s not yet conclusive evidence in relation to humans.
What is an Acai Bowl?
Most of us think of the acai bowl as something trendy and new, but it’s been a staple meal in many areas of Brazil for quite some time! And, the acai bowls we see on Instagram and Pinterest have changed quite a bit from the traditional…
In Pará, a northern state in Brazil known for its acai, an acai bowl is:
- savory, not sweet
- thick, unsweetened acai puree served at room temperature
- served with tapioca puffs as a topping
- a side dish at lunch or dinner
But in Rio de Janeiro, a southeastern coastal city in Brazil, acai bowls are:
- lightly sweetened or served with sugar
- thick, semi-frozen acai puree blended with just a little bit of water
- served with tapioca or granola as toppings
- a sweet snack, or a dessert
More recently, this simple, delicious dish has inspired an new acai bowl movement in places like Hawaii and Southern California. If you’ve heard of or eaten a smoothie bowl, then you get the gist of acai bowls: a thicker smoothie that’s served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon. In the U.S., people generally blend up other fruits and berries with acai puree, to add flavor and sweetness to their mixture. Rather than adding sugar or sweeteners, fruits like banana and mango are great additions that add natural sweetness. Then, the bowl is topped with all kinds of yumminess—fruits, coconut, granola, seeds—whatever you like! Best of all, acai bowls aren’t just delicious and Instagrammable…they’re packed with healthy fuel and nutrients!
Where Can I Find Acai?
Acai berries have been harvested and eaten for centuries in Brazil and among Amazonian populations. But, the rest of the world has only recently gotten a taste—literally. Until the early 2000s, acai was virtually unheard of outside anywhere of the Amazon! That was when flash-frozen acai puree began to be exported to the U.S. Surfers in Hawaii and Southern California caught the acai wave and started making acai bowls with a new flare. More fruits and toppings were added, acai bowls became popular in more and more cafes, and now we can even make acai bowls at home!
Unless you’re lucky enough to live where you have access to fresh acai berries, you’ll need to look for frozen acai puree, freeze-dried powder, or juice. These products can be found in some grocery stores (I found frozen, unsweetened acai puree at Trader Joe’s!), health food stores, and even online. Good news: both the flash-freezing and freeze-drying methods lock in the majority of acai’s nutrients! And, acai’s antioxidant levels stay high over time, which is why acai oil is used in many beauty products.
But, it’s important to know that, while acai juice contains some nutrients, it’s generally far less nutritious than the puree or powder. Acai juice is filtered to remove some of the pulp, so it tends to be lower in fiber and antioxidants. And, because acai is so low in sugar, many juices (and even some brands of acai puree) are packed with added sugars—be sure to read the nutrition labels!
Once you get your hands on some acai, there are plenty of ways to use it. Get ready for an explosion of flavor, nutrients, and that vibrant purple color! Acai bowls are the classic way to enjoy acai, but there are plenty of other fun ways to incorporate it into recipes, too. Check out these insanely beautiful acai recipes—some of them are from my Acai Recipes video, some are from other places online—and they’re all VEGAN or vegan-friendly!