Acai berry: small fruit, big wonder

With berries acquiring a 'super-food' status, the search for "berry-type" fruits has led to discovery of several varieties. Among them is the acai berry from South America. This small, round black/purple/red grape-like fruit grows on tall acai palm trees. Native to the Amazon region of Brazil, it is an integral part of the traditional diet and has been used for traditional medicine for centuries. In the past few years, more and more people have become aware of its health potential, after it was introduced in North America in the 1990s.

Like all berries, this one too is loaded with antioxidants. However, the difference lies in the exceptionally high level of these antioxidants. Measured by ORAC value (Oxygen radical absorbance capacity), a method of measuring antioxidant capacity, it shows that that acai pulp contains 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes and 10 to 30 times the anthocyanins of red wine.

Nutritionally too these berries are a bit distinct in their composition. Unlike other berries, they are a significant source of fat and are therefore high in calories. The fat primarily comes from a highly desirable kind of fat — the monounsaturated fat (MUFA) — the kind of fat found in olive oil. They also contain a fair amount of Omega 3 fats, the kind present in fish.

Acai berries are also good sources of fiber, proteins, B-vitamins, vitamin C and calcium. Berries are known for their unusually high content of phytosterols, and phenolic components (plant chemicals with special health benefits). No wonder the fruit has recently become popular as a functional food. Scientific studies suggest that these compounds have anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, immune-boosting properties by virtue of their free radical fighting actions.

Acai berries have other health benefits too. They offer protection against heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and neurological disorders like Alzheimer's and dementia. A recent study reported that the consumption of açai fruit pulp reduced levels of fasting glucose, insulin, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels in overweight adults. Their high fiber content has been found to be beneficial in constipation.

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