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Written by: Gayle Engels
Açaí (pronounced AH-sigh-EE, Euterpe oleracea), a palm tree native to Brazil, Colombia, and Suriname,1,2is most abundant in the eastern Amazonian estuary floodplains of the Brazilian state of Pará.3,4 The açaí palm is a tall, multi-stemmed tree that typically reaches heights of 40-60 feet.4 Açaí has long, pinnate leaves at the top of each stem and small brown or purple flowers that are both male and female.5 Each palm produces about 4 to 8 bunches of edible fruit per year, or 20 to 40 pounds of fruit.4,5 This fruit is a round, dark purple berry about ½ inch in diameter, and each bunch can weigh anywhere between 3 and 6 pounds.4 The fruit can be harvested throughout the year but is best during the dry season between July and December.3-5 Each berry contains a single large seed, surrounded by a thin fibrous layer, green lipid layer, and a purple skin similar to a grape skin. Açaí pulp is considered to have high antioxidant content and dense nutritional properties of omega essential fatty acids, protein, calcium, and fiber.
History and Cultivation
The Standardized Common Name of E. oleracea is cabbage palm, according to the US herbal industry.6However, since the commercially desirable part of the plant is the berry, and the juice of the berry is called açaí, this is the plant’s most widely-known name.1 The word açaí is the European corruption of the Tupian word ïwasa’i, meaning “fruit that cries or expels water.”7 (The Tupi-speaking people have inhabited Brazil dating back to the 1500s.8)
As for the plant’s Latin binomial, the genus Euterpe may be so named due to the tree’s graceful growth habit. In Greek mythology, Euterpe was the daughter of Mnemosyne and Zeus and one of the muses of music, song, and dance.9 The species name, oleracea, refers to having the nature of herbs for cookery, i.e., being edible.10
Ethnobotanists have estimated that the native tribes in the Amazon have at least 22 different uses for the açaí palm.5 Tribes in the Brazilian Amazon forest eat the palm hearts, use the fruit to make pulp, ink, and dye, and create thatched roofs using the mature palm fronds. The remainder of the felled palm is urinated on to attract beetles (Rhynchopohorus spp.), which lay eggs that produce pounds of larvae. These larvae are an important source of both protein and fat in the native diet. The tribes also sell the fruit and palm hearts in the cities and towns along the river.
The Amazonian tribes also have many medicinal uses for the palm. In the Peruvian Amazon, a strong tea (decoction) made by simmering the roots is used to treat ailments ranging from malaria, diabetes, jaundice, hair loss, hemorrhages, and anemia to liver and kidney diseases, dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation), and muscle pain,5 although scientific studies to support these and other traditional uses are lacking. Additionally, the Saramaccan Maroon communities have traditionally placed young, unfolded leaves around a baby’s neck for general health or growth promotion and to ward off evil.11 The fruit seeds were crushed and prepared as an infusion as a deterrent for fevers,5,12 or crushed to prepare a dark green oil used for scrofula (a tuberculous infection of lymph glands on the neck).12 The açaí berry was discovered to be a natural antioxidant and cholesterol controller by the uwishin, medicine men and women of the Shuar people of Eastern Ecuador.13 They also found it helped to build the immune system, fight infections like schistosomiasis, protect the heart, and control prostate enlargement. It was also used an as antibiotic to fight Staphylococcus aureus and as an energy booster for hunting and increased libido.13 The grated fruit rind is infused and used topically for skin ulcers.5,12 The oil of the fruit is used to treat diarrhea.1,2,5
The current main preparation of açaí in its native habitat is as a fruit pulp. The thick, purple fruit pulp is often eaten as porridge by combining with fish, cassava meal (manioc, Manihot esculenta, Euphorbiaceae), guarana (Paullinia cupana, Sapindaceae), or with tapioca and sugar. The açai pulp is also sweetened with sugar and used in ice cream and liquor, as well as other desserts.5,12
Açaí juice is prepared by soaking the fruit in water to soften it and then manually or mechanically removing the skin and flesh with a small blender. Commercial production of açaí pulp is performed in a similar manner, by softening the fruits in a luke-warm water bath for about 30 minutes and processing with stainless steel industrial equipment. The açai fruit pulp is pasteurized in many cases, especially when it is destined for export.
Although several in vitro and animal studies have been conducted, few human clinical trials have been performed to support the antioxidant and other claimed properties of the açaí berry.
One recent human study evaluated the pharmacokinetics of anthocyanins (the deep purple pigments in the fruits) and antioxidant effects of clarified açaí juice and açaí pulp after human consumption via blood and urine samples.14 (Pharmacokinetics is the process of how substances are absorbed, metabolized and excreted in the body.) When looking at the concentration of anthocyanins in the pulp and juice before consumption, the authors found that the anthocyanin concentration may be lower in clarified açaí juices due to the removal of anthocyanins that are trapped inside the insoluble matrix. In blood samples taken after consumption, the anthocyanin concentration was significantly higher from consuming the açaí fruit pulp versus the clarified açaí juice. (This suggests that the anthocyanins trapped in the matrix had been released within the intestinal tract and were available for absorption.) The antioxidant capacity and activities were also significantly higher for the pulp, but the concentration of polyphenolics was not high enough to reduce reactive oxygen species (ROS), i.e., the free radicals that contain the oxygen atom.14
In a pilot human trial with 10 slightly overweight but healthy adult men and women, each participant consumed 100 grams of açaí frozen fruit pulp (Sambazon®, San Clemente, CA) twice daily for 1 month.15Researchers measured participants’ baseline fasting plasma glucose, plasma insulin levels, lipid levels (total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, triglycerides), high sensitivity C-reactive protein, and blood pressure. After 30 days of consuming this proprietary açaí, participants’ fasting glucose, insulin, total cholesterol, and LDL (bad cholesterol) were significantly reduced compared to the baseline. In addition, post-prandial (between meals) increases in blood glucose levels were significantly reduced. (The trial was funded by Sambazon, Inc., and has not yet been published.)
Açaí’s international popularity is continuing to grow; sales topped $100 million in the United States in 2008.16 The United States is the major importer of açaí, where it is sold in many natural products such as fruit drinks, capsules and tablets, energy bars, and granola.5
The “açaí boom” over the last 2 decades has become an important part of the Brazilian Amazon’s economy. Increased demand for açaí has led to proposed projects for planting approximately 5 billion more açaí trees over the next 10 years.5 Some think this will cause what is called a “green deforestation.” According to Alfredo Homma, an agronomist with the Brazilian Institute for Agricultural Research, “They don’t bring down all the trees and leave the area deforested. They bring down diverse forests and replace them with one single culture—açaí.”17
Açaí is considered to be a good candidate for sustainable farming. While the majority of açai has been harvested according to conventional methods, the US company Sambazon established USDA organic certification for the açai palm in 2003 and has also implemented Fair Trade certification.
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|This article was published on Monday April 25, 2011.|