Acai berries are the fruits of the acai palm, a species of palm tree native to Central and South America. These berries, which are characterized by their grape-like appearance and bitter taste, have been cherished by the Amazonian natives for centuries due to their incredible medicinal properties. These properties, which are slowly being validated by ongoing studies, are the reason why acai berries - along with other Amazonian foods such as cacao, maca and camu camu - have become synonymous with the "superfood" label.
Research into acai berries - It all started with the word "anti-oxidant"
What does "anti-oxidant" really mean? To the lay person, this may not mean much, but to a person wanting to live a long, healthy, youthful life, this is the golden word. It starts with the telomeres in our cells. Every cell in our human body has telomeres. Inside the nucleus of a cell, our genes are arranged along twisted, double-stranded molecules of DNA called chromosomes. At the ends of the chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres, which protect our genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide, and hold some secrets to how we age and get cancer. Telomeres have been compared with the plastic tips on shoelaces, because they keep chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other, which would destroy or scramble an organism's genetic information. Yet, each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide; it becomes inactive or "senescent" or it dies. This shortening process is associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death. So telomeres also have been compared with a bomb fuse.
So how do we keep telomeres intact for longer periods during our lifespan? Multiple factors attribute to telomere shortening such as genetics, environment, stress and oxygen.
Of these set of factors, unfortunately, you are stuck with the genetics you got. However, the environment and stress can be managed through lifestyle factors. Moreover, the most controllable factor in aging is oxygen.
Oxygen? Yes! Oxygen, over time, is effectively a poison to our cells and causes damage to our cells, and therefore our telomeres, in the terms of "oxidative stress."
This is the current theory as to why dinosaurs were so large and the dragonflies from the prehistoric times were so large. More on this shortly.
The oxygen types that cause oxidative stress are known as "Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are chemically reactive molecules containing oxygen. Examples include peroxides. superoxide, hydroxyl radical, and singlet oxygen. ROS are formed as a natural byproduct of the normal metabolism of oxygen and have important roles in cell signaling and homeostasis. However, during times of environmental stress (e.g., UV or heat exposure) and regular breathing, ROS levels can increase dramatically. This may result in significant damage to cell structures. Cumulatively, this is known as oxidative stress. ROS are also generated by exogenous sources such as ionizing radiation.
These oxidants are produced normally when we breathe, and also result from inflammation, infection, and consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. In one study, scientists exposed worms to two substances that neutralize oxidants, and the worms' lifespan increased an average 44%.
Back to our dinosaurs and big dragonflies. Metabolic rate, the rate at which we physiologically burn energy, respire (breathe), and all other biochemical processes in our body, is extremely important on this oxygen topic. Size is inversely proportionate to metabolic rate - this means the smaller you are, the faster you breathe and burn energy. The larger you are, the slower you breathe and burn energy. Think of how fast an elephant breathes vs. a mouse. An elephant is very slow to breathe whereas a mouse is extremely fast. This is the going theory as to why dinosaurs were so big. During their time, there was 80% oxygen on earth - a lot of "poison" in the air. Today, there is less than 20% oxygen in our air. Natural selection's process drove them to be large to counteract the oxygen consumption in their bodies to survive and reproduce.
While we can't stop breathing in oxygen in hopes of prolonging our life, we can try to slow the aging process by reducing the amount of ROS we breathe in. A way to do this is to consume "anti-oxidants."
Now we talk briefly on "anti-oxidants." These are products such as fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms that are high in their ability to remove ROS from our bloodstream. This ability is typically from compounds in structure that enable the quickly pass-through or degradation of ROS and what is known as free radical oxygen.
One such species of anti-oxidant has gotten a lot of attention lately is Acai Berry.
The Acai Berry - rich in antioxidants - according to a study published in the June 2008 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, acai berries contain a large number of antioxidants that help scavenge cell-damaging free radicals from the body. In particular, the study, which was conducted by researchers at the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Texas A&M University, showed that acai berries possessed the highest antioxidant activity to date against a certain type of free radical, making them an excellent guard against degenerative diseases such as macular degeneration and Alzheimer's disease. Antioxidant-rich foods like acai berries have also been linked to improved cardiovascular health, improved skin and eye health, anti-aging benefits and more.
Anti-cancer properties - A study by researchers at the University of Florida has shown that acai berry extracts can help kill leukemia cells when applied directly to them over a 24-hour period. Specifically, 86 percent of leukemia cells experienced apoptosis ("cell death") when subjected to the extract; the researchers attributed this effect to acai berries' high concentrations of anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid that gives the fruits their distinctive, black-purple color. The study was published in the January 2006 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Obviously, more research into human studies is needed.
Immune-boosting properties - Acai berries contain a polysaccharide called arabinogalactan that is known to induce T cell (helper and killer - they are critical to our immunity) activity, thereby helping the body fight infections. According to researchers at the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Montana State University, these components in acai berries "have implications for the treatment of asthma and infectious disease."
Weight loss - Though no serious studies have been conducted on acai berries' alleged weight loss properties, anecdotal evidence persists. This is probably because a 100 gram serving of acai berries contains 2 grams of dietary fiber (8 percent of our RDI) and negligible amounts of fat and calories. Aside from sweeping the intestinal tract of accumulated matter, fiber helps to absorb water in the colon, promoting a feeling of fullness that discourages eating. Moreover, acai berries' energy-boosting properties can improve the length and quality of our exercise regimes.
Discerning acai products - Ever since the benefits of acai berries became well known in the West, the natural health market has exploded with a wide range of acai products - including some rather questionable ones. The best way to decide whether an acai product is high quality (and ethically sourced) or not is to check whether it is 1) made in a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certified lab and 2) wild crafted, meaning it has been harvested in its native state in South America. Products that meet both these criteria can be purchased with high confidence.
Devasagayam T, Tilak JC, Boloor KK, Sane Ketaki S, Ghaskadbi Saroj S, Lele RD (October 2004). "Free Radicals and Antioxidants in Human Health: Current Status and Future Prospects". Journal of Association of Physicians of India (JAPI)52: 796.
Sosa Torres ME, Saucedo-Vázquez JP, Kroneck PM (2015). "Chapter 1, Section 3 The dark side of dioxygen". In Kroneck PM, Torres ME. Sustaining Life on Planet Earth: Metalloenzymes Mastering Dioxygen and Other Chewy Gases. Metal Ions in Life Sciences 15. Springer. pp. 1–12.
Lane, Nick. "Oxygen - The Molecule That Made the World". 2003.
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Lisbeth A. Pacheco-Palencia, Susanne Mertens-Talcott, and Stephen T. Talcott
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Schauss AG, Wu X, Prior RL, Ou B, Huang D, Owens J, Agarwal A, Jensen GS, Har, AN, Shanbrom E. Antioxidant capacity and other bioactivities of the freeze-dried Amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart. (acai). Agric Food Chem. 2006 Nov 1;54(22):8604-10
Schauss AG, Wu X, Prior RL, et al. Phytochemical and nutrient composition of the freeze-dried Amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleracea Mart. (Açai). J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Nov 1;54(22):8598-603.