The healing properties of Brazilian berries of the assai palm tree are legendary. Is it right?
Assai berries and juice
First, a linguistic note: the fruits come from Brazil, and so their original name (from the Indian tupi-guarani language, where iłaça'i means "weeping fruit") came to us through the Portuguese language. The palm tree, where they grow (Euterpe oleracea, açaí palm), is colloquially called açaí, but under the letter 'c' there is a moustache worth noting, called in Portuguese a 'cedilha', which makes such 'ç' reads like a 's', or even double 'ss'. It is also worth to see the accent over the final "i" to know how the original name sounds like. So these are not 'acai berries', as you can sometimes hear in Poland but the 'Assai berries'. I even think that for the sake of clarity it would be worth to write this name that way: assaí, and pronounce it accordingly, with the accent on the final 'i'.
Euterpe oleracea, or the assai palm
Soaring and very beautiful, the assai palm with light plumes of leaves come from the plains and swamps of the Amazon, where due to the growing global demand for their fruit, they are increasingly being grown. The thin trunk of the palm tree grows up to 25 meters, and feathery leaves reach 3 meters in length.
Twice a year, this palm releases side clusters or panicles (cacho do açaí) with twigs, on which - a bit like a date palm - it raises fruits similar to small grapes, that are harvested in the dry season, from July to December. One cluster, for which the agile boys or lean and fit men have to climb the high palm up to the plume of leaves, usually produces 500-900 fruits. Initially green, the fruits then turn dark blue, when they ripe. Whoever gets fooled by the appearance of the fruit similar to other berries and will try to gnaw it, will the risk to break some teeth. 80% of the interior of the fruit consists of pip, as hard as bone, containing seed. It is surrounded by flesh of a millimetre thickness, and it is only with it, with this thin millimetre layer that is produced the unmatched, chocolate-berry flavour, maroon-purple colour paste, which is now - apart from exotic wood - the most popular product in the Amazon. It is even believed that in view of the increasing demand and the price of the dense juice, the assaí palm can relieve economically the thinning of precious wood species in tropical rainforests, because it will draw the economic interests to the fruit and its products.
Many clusters on a palm tree
As demand grows, there are more and more signs of marketization of production, including artificial fertilization, pesticides, deforestation for plantations, breeding new artificial varieties (including white) etc. The assaí berries lose in this way the charm of a natural and environmentally friendly product. Still, there are a dietary and export hit. A world power in the production and processing of assaí is Brazil, for which the berry, mainly in its processed form (paste, syrup, dried powder, tablets) is also an important export product. 70% of the world production of assaí comes from the Amazon and from the state of Pará in the north, from the equatorial part of the country.
Assaí palm plantation
The harvest of panicles (colheita) and gathering berries from the stems (debulha), is just the beginning of processamento, that is the processing of fruit in order to get food. The fruits are mixed in the mill-centrifuge, where they are wiping each other and scraping from the seed the layer of pulp, making it a paste, less or more dense, depending on how much water was added thereto. Seeds peeled in this manner from the pulp also form a very valuable waste: they are ground into a fine, heavy and sticky flour, which is given to cattle and pigs as a fairly meaty feed.
Harvesting of assai
The assai berries, meaning the pulp, are traditionally an important component of the diet of indigenous Indians and kabokli (Brazilian settlers, usually of mixed race) in the Amazon. It has been found in three studies that, by weight, assai makes up 42% of the diet of kabokli who consume them mostly as açaí na tigela , literally "assai in the bowl," or as a thick cocktail with bananas and other fruits. The very popular urban version today is a dish made from frozen mousse from assai mixed with guarana, sprinkled with granola or muesli, and served as a cocktail in a glass or bowl, usually with bananas or other fruits. Most Brazilians know and appreciate the properties of assai berries: "O consumo da fruta auxilia no Retardo to envelhecimento, Promove uma pele mais saudável e com aparência mais jovem" (the consumption of this fruit helps delay aging, gives the skin a healthier and younger appearance), says the Brazilian wikipedia.
Açaí na tigela
Assai berries that look like blueberries and taste most like blueberries or chocolate, actually contain large amounts of vitamins and minerals, but above all a wealth of almost all types of antioxidants that slow the aging process and inhibit the growth of cancer cells (including resveratrol, cyanidin-3-glucoside and ferulic acid, among others). They also contain a large amount of polyphenols (for example the ellagic acid), which also present antioxidant activity. Specialist have assessed the effectiveness of antioxidants contained therein at approx. 161 400 μmolin one ounce (approx. 29 grams). It's much more than for example in red grapes (approx. 1800 μmol in one ounce), which is traditionally considered to be the best source of antioxidants.
Assai berries also support the work of the heart. Since assai berries also contain a lot of anthocyanins and are rich in fatty acids such as the oleic acid (from the group of omega-9 unsaturated fatty acids) and linoleic acid (from omega-6 UFAs). These compounds help to lower the levels of "bad" cholesterol (LDL) and raise levels of the "good" one (HDL) in the body, and so are helpful in the prevention of atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases. The absorption of "bad" fats also is also inhibited by the fibre contained in the assai fruits.
Splendid cluster of palm assai berries
The assai fruits are moreover a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, vitamins B1, B2 and E. Without a doubt, a diet full of assai fruits has a positive impact on the appearance of the skin, it smooths wrinkles and gives the face younger and healthier appearance, as it definitely slows degenerative processes of the cells.
In Poland Assai berries are most famous from their least significant side - as a means to lose weight. Indeed, thanks to the large amount of fibre (16.9 g per 100 g), they accelerate the metabolism and digestion. They give long-lasting feeling of satiety, and thus help to control and gradually reduce the amount of calories consumed. However, contrary to popular belief, they are no "cure" for obesity because, unlike other fruits, they are quite calorific (100 g = 80 calories). Therefore, eaten in moderate amounts, they can only support the weight loss process. Brazilian nutritionists recommend a daily dose of no more than 200 g.
A typical dish in the Brazilian version
However, the assai fruits very quickly lose their healing properties, and therefore are not suitable for export. Transportation of the whole berries along with pits would be absurd. In Europe, and so in Poland as well, assai fruit can be purchased only as frozen purees, juices, in pasteurized or powdered form.
Frozen açaí berry pulp is available in the Cuisines of the World delis and web shop
Powdered dried açaí berries are available in the Cuisines of the World delis and web shop