If the thought of magenta purees for breakfast sounds "extra," think again. Acai bowls — smoothies made with mashed acai berries — have earned a spot on menus around the world, and for good reason. The acai berry (it's pronounced ah-sah-ee) is filled with nutrients that may help prevent ailments like arthritis, high cholesterol and even erectile dysfunction. In fact, the grape-sized berry is so nutritious it's earned the coveted title of superfood.
Of course, acai is not new to the U.S. culinary scene. This berry, harvested from acai palm trees near the Amazon River Basin in Brazil, has long been a staple among the ribeirinhos, a traditional South American population. It rose to fame in Rio de Janeiro when martial artists added the purple puree to athletes' diets. Then two Californians discovered the energy-boosting berry; they imported it, raised awareness about the health benefits, and, eventually, the berry caught on stateside.
Today, you can find acai bowls, powders, beverages and other berry products in smoothie shops and grocery stores across the U.S. Here's why you should try — or continue eating — the delicious acai berry.
They're Packed With Important Nutrients
Acai's placement in the superfood category makes sense; the berries are filled nutrients that have been touted to help arthritis, aid in weight loss, increase energy, prevent aging and help high cholesterol, among other ailments. Of course, many of these lofty claims have yet to be scientifically proven, according to the Mayo Clinic, but acai berries do have essential nutrients that experts swear by.
Dietician Allison Tepper of Tepper Nutrition says acai shares similar benefits with other berries; they're high in fiber, which keeps you full longer; they're low-calorie, at about 70 calories per cup of raw berries; they're chock-full of vitamins and minerals; and they're packed with antioxidants, which is one major reason they earned the superfood label.
They Taste, Well, Unique
Acai may look like grapes or juicy blueberries, but this berry has its own unique and rich flavor. If you eat it raw in berry form, expect an earthy, bitter taste that's a mix between rich blackberries and dark chocolate. The taste sensation happens in two steps: At first bite, it's full-on blackberry flavor, then after a few seconds chewing, hints of dark chocolate emerge. This is likely because of the polyphenols found in acai berries are also in cocoa beans.
Raw acai berries do have their challenges, though. The fruit is between 60 to 80 percent pit. Plus, they're fragile, which makes them tough to import. That's why most acai enthusiasts use powders, tablets, juices or smoothies to reap the berry's rewards.
Those acai juices and smoothies taste sweeter, too. Like most smoothies, acai bowls pick up on the acai berry's original flavor, then complement it with yogurt or milk, other berries, fresh fruit, granola, nuts, peanut butter, and, of course, sugar. That's the kicker, and potentially negative health aspect of this fruit in smoothie form.
According to diet-tracking app My Fitness Pal, a 28-ounce (793-gram) acai-puree bowl from health food chain Vitality Bowls has 64 grams of sugar; that's more than a massive Cinnabon classic roll, which has 58 grams. Of course, that's not to say you can't find healthier options. It's one of the reasons dieticians like Tepper get their acai-bowl fix at home.
Harvesting Acai Is Sustainable
Nutrition trends may help you try new things and eat healthier, but they can also wreak havoc on the environment. Take almonds. These trendy nuts require hefty amounts of water, and 80 percent of the world's almond supply is grown in drought-prone California. That means over-production of almonds can use up sparse water resources, so Global Citizen recommends treating almonds and almond milk like a splurge — not a staple.
Acai berries, on the other hand, get a sustainability thumbs-up. Farmers typically use the entire acai tree for everything from construction to woven baskets. Plus, only 7 percent of acai palms are actually planted, according to Global Citizen. Most grow naturally across the Amazon.