In part 1 of Superfood Hype we looked at our bodies ability to absorb nutrients and the futility of vitamin water. Continuing the discussion on superfood hype I’d like to zoom in on another famed “Superfood,” the exotic açaí berry. A quick Google search on the açaí berry generates about 1,000,000 hits. Needless to say that it has gotten a bit out of hand. So, how can a berry get this much attention and why?
I’ll start with a little bit of information about this “wonder” berry. The açaí berry (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) comes from the açaí palm which is indigenous to Central and South America and grows in the Amazon region as well as swamps and flood plains. The berry is about the size of a grape and is dark purple. What has given the açaí berry its popularity is the high levels of antioxidants it contains and of course the huge marketing campaigns made by the food industry. Other nutrients found in the berry include several amino acids, essential fatty acids (EFAs), sterols, fiber, B vitamins, vitamins A, E, and C, calcium, phosphorus, iron, selenium and zinc. So yes, this is a healthy berry but what berry isn’t?
As with any Superfood there is a long list of health claims pushed by suppliers and retailers. Eating açaí berry or supplements of it will; help fight heart disease, help people lose weight, help muscle growth, prevent aging, stop cancer, improve sexual performance, improve digestion, improve sleep, improve arthritis and improve general health. Judging by all these claims the açaí berry really seems to be able to turn us into healthy, happy and disease free human beings but, as always, when it comes to the superfood market there is limited credible scientific research to support the health claims.
Are antioxidants really good for you?
The big selling point pushed by the food industry in the promotion of the açaí berry is the high antioxidant levels it contains. But looking at the science there are conflicting reports regarding the amount of antioxidants in the açaí berries, ranging from medium to high levels of antioxidants. The general idea is that antioxidants are heroes because they fight the free radicals that we have in our bodies and that is good because the free radicals can cause problems for us like cancer and other diseases. An interesting fact however, is that new reports show that our bodies might actually need these free radicals in order for the heart to beat with the correct force. The researchers say that free radicals play an important role, since they contribute to the heart being able to pump more blood in stress-filled situations. With that in mind maybe it’s not so super to pump our bodies with too much antioxidants at the end.
Some useful comparisons here. Take Vitamin C for example. When it comes to the açaí berry there is many different claims on how much Vitamin C they contain. Some say that the levels were measured to 17 mg per 100 g. Other studies show that the amount of Vitamin C in the berry is negligible. By comparison a typical sized orange contains 53 mg per 100 g which is 71% of the recommended daily amount. So, by just looking at the Vitamin C levels the açaí berry is not all that super. With that being said the berry in question does have high levels of other minerals and vitamins but there is a range of cheaper food available that can provide you with what your body needs as well.
Can one berry really do all that?
Its important to note there is just no way one berry can give us all of the claimed benefits. Why? Because we have to think about all of the other stuff that we eat and drink, our health will always be a product of everything that we consume.
Again, I will not say that the açaí berry isn’t healthy because it has a good compound of nutrients. But, as a food scientist, it’s just absurd to think that by consuming the berry, or supplements of it, will be the magical cure of whatever health problem you might have. In my opinion it’s reasonable to seek out more cost-effective alternatives and make sure to eat a range of locally sourced fruit and vegetables in order to meet your body’s need of vitamins and minerals.
So sorry people, putting all of your trust in the açaí berry’s “magical” power is somewhat misguided. We need to be more skeptical about the claims of the food industry and start focusing on the bigger picture; an overall healthy diet that does not rely on one “magical” component.
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