The first time I ever tried acai (pronounced: ah-sah-yee) in 1997, the fruit was served to me as a thick drink by an Ipixuna Indian woman, when I was living on the Amazon River for a month. Acai, Euterpe oleracea, was as deep purple as any food I had ever seen. In fact, a spill stained a favorite t-shirt of mine, forever. I loved the rich flavor of acai, and the energy it imparted, and consumed as much as I could during the course of my time on the river. When I left Brazil that time, I lamented that I’d probably never be able to obtain acai back home. Times have changed, and this delicious fruit is now widely available, from Whole Foods to up-market grocery stores.
A so-called “super-berry” that grows on palms trees in the Amazon, acai is a staple food throughout Amazonia, and that status owes directly to its marvelous flavor. Acai explodes with flavor, and gets better with every mouthful. Rich in the potent purple pigments called anthocyanins, acai has a higher antioxidant activity rating than bilberries or blueberries, and is rich in beneficial dietary fibers. A glass of blended acai fruit, with just a slight touch of energizing guarana and certified organic sugar, imparts so much energy, you’ll want to dance and yodel while climbing a mountain at the same time. No wonder endurance cyclists and ball players have taken to this fruit. Surfers, skateboarders, X-gamers and outdoor enthusiasts speak of acai with reverence.
The berry craze is on full throttle now, and purveyors of each berry – from blueberries to blackberries, black currants and elderberries – have positioned their berry as the ultimate. All of these berries are rich in the purple antioxidant pigments called anthocyanins, and all impart both antioxidant protection to cells, and anti-inflammatory activity as well. As far as I am concerned, they are all extraordinary foods, and are valuable in any person’s diet. I just happen to favor acai most of all, because I love the flavor and the fact that the acai trade is helping to reduce deforestation in some parts of the Amazon.
Forest Preservation - Fast-forward years later, once more in the Brazilian rainforest, this time in the company of Ryan Black, founder of Sambazon Acai. We are watching several hard-working Brazilians climb tall acai palms rapidly, cut branches laden with ripe purple acai berries, and strip the berries into baskets, readying them for processing.
“Our wildharvesting system was developed in conjunction with the Forest Sustainability Council,” Ryan explains. “We’ve taught people how to wildharvest acai, and protect the forest at the same time.” Through ecologically sound agro-forestry management practices, Sambazon has established a top-notch conservation program that protects the Amazon rainforest and minimizes habitat loss. On top of that, they’ve implemented a fair wage system that provides higher than average wages to over 10,000 families in Brazil’s Amapa state. Sambazon has won praise and support from World Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy and Greenpeace. As far as Ryan Black is concerned, it’s all just a reasonable and fair way to operate a business. “Might as well do it right if you’re going to do it,” he says.
Harvested from August through December in the hot, humid Amazon rainforest, acai is a high labor fruit. I watch the remarkable climbing skills of the harvesters, and realize with some sadness that I could never climb trees like that, let alone do it every day.
Traditional acai -We are invited into a large wooden house with open windows and about a dozen children crowding around us, to watch a woman prepare acai the traditional way. In this house, the preparation is all performed by hand. The woman hand grinds the berries through fiber mats, until the juice and fine pulp drip into a container underneath. After laboring on our behalf for more than half an hour, she serves us acai. Several of us spoon the rich berry preparation into our mouths, and laugh at our good fortune until tears form in our eyes.
“Now this is how to eat acai,” I declare.
Truth is, unless you make a pilgrimage to the Brazilian Amazon, your best acai bet will be freezer packs or smoothies found in natural food stores.
Acai diets- Just a quick word about the acai diets that everybody has been spammed over. Useless. Acai is not a diet miracle. It is a wonderful, amazing-tasting, highly beneficial fruit that gives you energy and makes you feel good. But don’t be bilked by companies that want you to believe it’s the key to slimming. It isn’t.
There’s really no need to try to make something more than it is. In the case of acai, this is a superior, nutrient-rich fruit with tremendous antioxidant value. It offers great flavor, and makes you feel good. The harvesting of acai provides a living to a lot of people, and helps to preserve some of the Amazon rainforest. In my mind, that’s more than enough.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com