By Kathryn A. Allen, MA, RD, LD/N, CSO
Are acai berries really as magical as they sound? Read on.
These small Brazilian berries, claimed to be found solely in the rainforest and introduced to the Northern Hemisphere in recent years, have gained popularity due to their purported health benefits. Part of the allure of acai (ä-sī-‘ē) berries seems to be their scarcity because they can be found “only” in the Brazilian rainforest. Ads for acai products suggest that they can help shed pounds, flatten tummies, cleanse colons, enhance sexual desire and even prevent cancer, among a long list of other things.
The acai berry comes from a species of palm tree native to Central and South America, from Belize south to Brazil and Peru, and they grow mainly in swamps and floodplains. For years these berries have been used as a major food source in the Amazon region of Brazil.
Cancer-Fighting Chemicals Found In Berries
Many people know that antioxidants neutralize free radicals, but they become confused by various products claiming to have a superior antioxidant capacity. The answer lies in how tests are conducted and which results are made public by the manufacturer. Results from a recent study, for example, showed higher antioxidant activity in pomegranate, Concord grape, blueberry and black cherry juices compared to acai berry juice.
Additional research has shown that all edible berries, including acai, are rich in cancer-fighting chemicals known as phytochemicals. Strawberries and raspberries are particularly rich in a phytochemical called ellagic acid, a potent antioxidant that has been shown to help the body deactivate certain carcinogens. Blueberries contain the phenolic compounds anthocyanosides, which are among the most potent antioxidants yet discovered. Grapes and grape juice are rich sources of resveratrol, another phytochemical from the phenol family that has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Even so, the extent to which antioxidants by themselves promote health is debatable. There’s no scientific evidence to support claims that acai berries or any other fruit juice performs any of the other commonly advertised functions.
In the world of fruits, vegetables and phytochemicals, 1+1 does not always equal 2; it may equal 3, scientists have found. When specific phytochemicals have been extracted from a food to study the antioxidant properties, the potency is lower than that which is found when the phytochemical is tested in the form of whole food. Eating phytochemicals in the proportion and combination nature intended seems to have a synergistic effect. Simply put, there is much greater benefit to be found in eating the whole food, such as whole berries or grapes, as opposed to taking a juice extract, powder or pill.
Eating a variety of nutrient- and phytochemical-dense fruits and vegetables has a much greater impact on overall health and cancer risk reduction than taking an individual supplement. Although blueberries and raspberries may not have the same trendy appeal as acai berries, they pack the same punch and can put a few dollars back in your wallet. Drinking pomegranate juice or, better yet, eating pomegranates can give you more antioxidants, fiber and the added benefit of consuming fewer calories.
My nutrition advice: Avoid trends and eat a rainbow of healthy, delicious fruits and vegetables every day.
Kathryn A. Allen, MA, RD, LD/N, CSO, is the director of Moffitt Cancer Center’s Department of Nutrition where she has been a registered dietitian since 1992. She has served as project manager and co-investigator for several National Cancer Institute-funded research studies. Additionally, Allen was instrumental in the development and implementation of Moffitt’s R.E.N.E.W. 180™, a comprehensive lifestyle improvement program designed to meet the needs of cancer survivors after they have completed the initial phase of their therapy.