What is Açai?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Acai berries
Acai berries on their stalks.

 Getty Images

Plenty of trendy produce items have stolen the spotlight in the health food scene over time, but açai berries are having a particular moment and are an ingredient and "superfood" worth knowing about. This Amazonian berry maintains its staple status in its native land, and have never been more popular in the United States.

What is Açai?

This berry grows on the açaí palm tree, which bears fruit in clusters under broad leaves. It's harvested in big bunches of small, grape-like berries that look like beads hanging from the fronds. Each berry has a large pit that takes up 70 percent of the mass, which is removed before consuming.

The acai berry has been a staple food of people living near and around the Amazon River delta, from Brazil to Peru, for all of recorded history. Traditionally the tiny, dark purple-fleshed berry is soaked in water to soften the flesh and skin in order to rub it free from the hard pit inside. The resulting violet mush is eaten with fish, game meats, as a soup or as a condiment (though the trend nowadays is to blend it with other ingredients into a smoothie to drink or top with other healthy ingredients in a bowl).

Açai is imported in powdered and frozen form all over the United States and world.

What to Do With Açai

Because açai spoils so fast, it's almost exclusively frozen or powdered, which can make working it into food a little difficult. Açai bowls remain popular: a thick base of pureed banana, frozen açai, and berries topped with granola, fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds. It's typically served chilled, and eaten with a spoon.

Now that the peak of the trend has passed, açai has become more of a familiar sight. You'll continue to see plenty of açai bowls, purple frozen yogurt laced with açai, and all kinds of products bearing this famously healthy fruit at juice and smoothie bars, vegan restaurants, and wellness cafés.

In the berry's native land, Brazilians turn the berry into an orchid-hued ice cream topped with chopped nuts and cacao nibs. Try it in a simple smoothie with yogurt, banana, and raspberries, or add a spoonful of the powder form to baked goods.

What Does Açai Taste Like?

Unlike most other berries, there's not much sweetness to this earthy fruit. Instead, it's a bit tart with an earthy backbone, with notes of raspberry, pomegranate, and a pinch of dirt. The high acidity of the berry marries well with other, sweeter fruits and flavors, and many recipes using açai also call for honey or other sweeteners.

Acai berries
Acai berries in the wild Amazon River delta. Getty Images 
Powdered acai
A bowl of powdered acai. Getty Images 
Acai bowl
The acai bowl, a popular health food.  Getty Images
Smoothie with acai
Acai berries make a great smoothie.  Getty Images
Acai berry
A spoonful of powdered acai. Getty Images 

Recipes

For something light, fresh and summery, add açai berry to all things cool, creamy and easy to eat. This ingredient works especially well in desserts and sweet breakfast dishes.

Where to Buy Acai

The açai berry grows exclusively in the Amazon River delta and in Trinidad and Tobago, so you're not likely to find them fresh anywhere in the United States. It's shipped frozen or powdered, and stocked at retailers online or on the shelves of your local health store.

Storage

Keep packs of frozen açai in the freezer until ready to use. Avoid re-freezing, as this contributes an unpleasant texture and can deplete some of the nutrients. Powdered açai will keep for up to a year in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Make sure to check the expiration dates on açai products, as the berry is highly perishable.

Nutrition and Benefits

One cup of açai pulp or pureé has about 70 calories and is packed with fiber, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium. Açai is beneficial for colon and digestive health, heart health, bone density, and immune function. Eating açai with other good-for-you foods is a good way to boost your overall nutrition.

Myths

Though these berries are exceptionally nutritious, no superfood can prevent disease or cure existing ailments. Maintain a healthy balanced diet full of all kinds of fresh produce for optimal health, and supplement with açai for an effective antioxidant boost.