Are exotic açaí and maqui fruit berries nutrition powerhouse, or a trendy fad? How do you really know the antioxidant power they bring to your kitchen table? It’s not a number on the nutrition label, after all. And, what’s the big deal with purple berries? Why are they any different than red berries?
We’ll cover all of this and leave you with some strategies for choosing your fruits. First, let’s cover the research and the trendy info on the berries. Then, let’s discuss the nutritional value in terms of vitamins and minerals based on the nutrition labels. Next up, we’ll move on to some ways to evaluate antioxidant power and conclude with some ideas regarding how to make decisions based on the information.
Let’s Talk About Maqui Berry!
And invite his cousin Açai into the conversation. Let’s share the table with the whole Berry Family!
Are they just trendy fruits for manufacturers to boost their bottom line, or do they contain nutritional value to boost your personal wellness?
Maqui berries, formally known as Aristotelia Chilensis or Chilean wineberries, are native to South America. They come from the rainforests of Chile and nearby regions of southern Argentina. Limited numbers of these trees are cultivated in gardens for their small fruits, known as maqui berries.
For hundreds of years, the Mapuche people have used the berry for its amazing antioxidant effects. Archaeological finds have shown that the Mapuche have existed in south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina, including parts of present-day Patagonia, as early as 600 to 500 BC.
Açaí berries originate from the açaí palm tree, native to tropical Central and South America, specifically Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, mainly in swamps and floodplains, becoming a staple around the 18th century. They produce a deep purple fruit very similar in looks and makeup to the maqui berry.
Açaí palms are tall, slender trees growing to more than 25 m (82 ft) tall, with pinnate leaves up to 3 m (9.8 ft) long. The açaí is cultivated for its fruit (açaí berries, or simply açaí), hearts of palm (a vegetable), leaves, and trunk wood. Global demand for the fruit expanded rapidly in the 21st century and so the tree became cultivated to meet the need.
The Scoop on Berries
Before we get to açaí and maqui, specifically, let’s talk about berries, in general.
Fruits are well-respected nutritional powerhouses and a great friend of the plant-based eater or anyone who wants to enjoy real food filled with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, such as flavonoids.
Berries, in particular, are very high in antioxidants, and purple, blue and black berries, in particular, excel at their job. They also serve double duty with their ability to turn a boring plate of, well, fruits, into fabulous food art. All while the antioxidants fight the free radicals in your body.
You are likely familiar with vitamins and minerals, but what are antioxidants? Phytonutrients?
In a nutshell, food is filled with micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) and macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates).
We need vitamins for proper metabolism and for our cells to function. Minerals, such as calcium, potassium and more, are necessary for bone strength, controlling body fluids and turning food into energy.
Phytonutrients are nutrients in plants that protect them and flow through to plant foods. Flavanoids, which originate in the roots of plants and give the berries their color, are one example of phytonutrients. These phytonutrients in the plant-based foods contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Antioxidants fight the free radicals in your body. The free radicals are toxins that can come from the environment (pollution) or from within (inflammation).
The purple and dark colored berries, especially rich in flavonoids are rich in antioxidants, which protect us from the toxins in the environment and from within our bodies. There is a reason for the expression: eat your colors!
Antioxidants come with a long list of health boosting properties, from fighting inflammation and allergies to reducing our risk for many diseases. In other words, they are great for anti-aging.
Blackberries, blueberries and raspberries have been around for ages. Back in the late 1990s, the açaí berry came on the food scene. An exotic berry, considered a ‘superfruit’, açaí was suddenly the trendy juice of choice, and it was enthusiastically welcomed into households around the world. No need to travel to the Amazon for an açaí bowl. Then, along came their cousin, the maqui berry.
So why are maqui and açaí being singled out for the superfruit antioxidant powers. Don’t all berries have these characteristics? The answer in my opinion is yes, but some will disagree.
Some people believe that açaí and maqui berries excel in the nutrient department, benefitting from the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the flavonoids that give them their deeply richer-er color. One specific flavonoid, quercetin, is the actual pigment with antioxidant properties that gives berries their colors. Quercetin is believed to help to alleviate eczema, sinusitis, asthma, and hay fever.
If you breeze the internet, you’ll see claims that maqui and açaí have strong vitamin E properties and a particularly keen ability to attract and carry fats away to disposal sites in the body through the lymph system. When this type of fat is banned from the body, arteries are free to function more efficiently, which ensures that organs like the heart and brains will be fed appropriately with nutrients.
But there is nothing to substantiate that the açaí and maqui are any better than the good ole blackberry or blueberry! And the Federal Trade Commission is coming down hard on manufacturers who make false claims. Very little research has been done in people on the health effects of açaí products.
It is also important to frame in your mind that most studies referencing the antioxidant and health effects of fruits and, in particular berries, are referring to the actual food – the berries – not food products made from the food.
And since açaí and maqui are native to the Amazon, it’s the products made from the berries that make their way beyond the borders. Blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, however, are grown locally. More is known about them. They are more readily studied, controlled and available.
The bigger issue, in my opinion, is what is sprayed on that produce! A topic for a future blog post …..
Where in the World are the Berries?
Did you ever notice that you can’t go into a grocery store, in the U.S. anyway, and purchase fresh açaí or maqui berries? The reason may be as simple as the fact that they are grown in the Amazon. Not much is really known about them. There are strict guidelines for importing fresh produce.
Even outside the U.S. and in Brazil, the fruit is mainly available in dried and pulp form due to ease of storage and transportation, according to Transparency Market Research.
Today, you can get products made from these exotic berries as a tea, in powder form to add to your smoothies, or as a frozen purée for your juices and smoothie bowls. And yes, there is açaí flavored ice cream, but I doubt that comes with and benefits from the actual berry. The powdered version comes in nicely designed bags in your local health food store, grocery stores or, of course, Amazon. It is packaged similarly with turmeric, cacao, flax seeds and chia seeds.
You can add the berry powder to your smoothies to level up your breakfast. Toss it into your oatmeal. Sprinkle it on a banana. Add it to your favorite Energy Bar recipe. If you want to get extra ambitious, you can even use it to sweeten sauces without drastically changing the flavor instead of using sugar.
Açaí and maqui are quite tasty and can really flavor up your food!
You can even buy it as an extract for the skin. Not to ingest!
The Label Tells the Story
But how much nutrition are you really getting from that teaspoon or two of açaí and maqui powder? And what is actually in the powder stuff?
Let’s take a look at a few product labels.
Açaí and Maqui Powder
I took a look at a major açaí and maqui powder brand. According to their açaí powder packaging, the product contains “freeze-dried powder that re-hydrates in water and is loaded with antioxidants, an optimal combination of essential amino acids and is ‘packed’ with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.”
They mention that the superfruit açaí is known for healing, immune boosting and energy boosting properties. They mention that their powder is made from the highest quality berries. However, berries are not listed in with the ingredients on the ingredients label. I would think that if berries were an actual ingredient, they would be listed. Is it the berries that are freeze dried, as it seems like they want you to believe? If so, wouldn’t they have said their product contains “freeze dried berries” as opposed to “freeze dried powder”? They talk about the benefits of the “superfruit açaí”, but they don’t actually say their product contains actual açaí berries. I think that if it did, they would heavily market that fact!
But that’s not necessarily bad, especially if you simply want to add some great taste to your smoothie and pick up some vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. I also note that they state that their product is “loaded with” antioxidants, but they don’t quantify the term in any way.
There’s really no way that I know of to confirm that the product “loaded” with amino acids, omegas and antioxidants. We can look at the nutrition label for vitamins and minerals. And we can look at the ORAC value for information on antioxidants, although the ORAC value will not be specific to the product.
With 1.5 teaspoons of açaí powder, you get 20 calories, 1.5 grams of total fat (none saturated), 1 g of total carbohydrates, 1 g of dietary fiber, 32 mg of potassium, and 6 mg of calcium. Based on their label, the potassium and calcium represent 1% of your daily value, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Where’s all the vitamins?
Their maqui powder has similar numbers, considering the serving size is 1 teaspoon. It does carry one extra total carbohydrate, with the same 1 gram of fiber.
Neither product contains added sugars.
Not so bad if all you want to do is add some flavor to your smoothie or dessert or create a sauce. It’s definitely do-able on a low-carb diet, depending upon how you plan to use it.
Frozen Açaí Purée by a Major Brand
I could not find frozen maqui packs, but let’s look at an açaí purée. With the purée, you get a little more in the nutrition department, still without at least most of the added sugars and the same 1 net gram of carbs. (4 total grams with 3 grams of fiber). Calories don’t look too bad at 80. The extra fiber is a plus. You also get 15% of your daily Vitamin A based on a 2,000-calorie diet and 4% calcium. According to the packaging, a serving (1 pack) contains 5 grams of omegas. Seems pretty decent.
According to their ingredients label, they are made from organic açaí purée, with less than 0.2% citric acid. They similarly point out the benefits of the berries without explicitly stating that they are made from the berries. Maybe we are supposed to assume that by definition the purée is literally puréed berries. But why wouldn’t they just state that?
They mention that they work with local communities in the Amazon to ensure their açaí berries are handpicked at the peak of nutrition using completely sustainable practices, then pulped and freshly frozen within hours of harvest to preserve their valuable nutrients.
Definite plus that they handpick their berries and work with local communities. Do we assume that the fresh berries form the base of the purée? A friend says I’m way too harsh. If they say they are handpicking berries, and they are making a purée, it is logical to assume that the purée is primarily berries. I’m still mulling that one over. No added sugars?
Well they are focused on sustainability and social responsibility and have a direct partnership in their Brazilian Amazon production facility. The packaging for this brand indicates that they are organic, vegan and gluten-free. Workable on low-carb diets, depending upon what else you add. Maybe a drizzle of olive oil and a little coconut with some seeds.
Looks to me like a fantastic option for the clean, plant-based eater! Or, anyone who wants a great smoothie.
I think I will enjoy it topped off with more fruit, seeds, nuts, possibly a touch of cinnamon!
Açaí Bowl with a Café View
So, what about the beautiful açaí bowls that you get at your local café? In this case, you are looking at a menu item as opposed to an ingredient. I’ve had quite a few in my lifetime, and they are delicious. As I expected, they come with a lot more in the vitamins and minerals department, along with more in the calories, carbs and sugar department. Most of the “extras” are from the “healthy” plant-based foods that are added to the base. Let’s take a look at one chain’s açaí bowl.
According to their website, the nutrition information is for a basic açaí bowl. They also mention that a basic bowl contains strawberries, açaí blend, blueberries, soymilk, bananas, organic granola, honey, and shredded coconut.
Clocking in at 101 carbs, 11 grams of which come from fiber and 65 grams from sugar, this would not be an optimal choice for someone on Keto or another low carb diet. While much of the sugar is likely from natural sources, it really isn’t clear.
They do not identify what the “açaí blend” is made of, which introduces a Big Question Mark in terms of the analysis. Is it simply frozen purée, or a yogurt mixture? If it’s a yogurt mix, how natural is it? How much of the sugar is attributable to the blend? Looking at it from a marketing perspective, if I created a product with açaí purée, I would state that – rather than call it “açaí blend”. And if it was pure puréed berries, I’m positive they would state it!
Let’s Talk Antioxidants
We already covered antioxidants, and every one of the products we looked at claim they are high in them. So how do we really know how many antioxidants are in powders, frozen packs and bowls? It’s not listed on the ingredients label.
Well, we can look at the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC). The ORAC, reported in May 2010 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, measures the antioxidant power of foods, but don’t expect to find it on a nutrition label. A little less scientific than nutrition labels, it is static information related to specific food studies, not foods and products on the market. But it does give information for basic analysis and comparison.
For example, surprisingly, the report does identify “acai, fruit pulp/skin, powder” and assigns it a total ORAC value of 102,700 for 100 grams, which equates to about 5,135 for 1 teaspoon. Here are some more fruits evaluated for comparison.
Fuji raw apple with skin = 2,589
One half cup of blueberries = 4,669
One-half cup of blackberries = 5,905
One-half cup of raspberries = 5,065
If you would like to see the full report, you can find it here.
The Results Are In …. Or, are they?
Well, we talked a lot about the vitamin, mineral and phytonutrient content of berries, in general. We discussed maqui and açaí berries, specifically. We covered the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of berries, and the ability to attract and carry away fats that lead to cholesterol buildup. These benefits are attributed primarily to fresh produce, particularly berries, such as blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. Not necessarily products made from the berries.
We learned that there are no formal studies on açaí or maqui berries and their effects on wellness, so we are left to the nutrition labels and ORAC values for analysis … and anything on the packaging that we personally choose to carry weight in our decision making.
We saw that sometimes manufacturers twist words to their benefit. Açaí powder is not the same as açaí berries. It’s not all bad. It only becomes so when it crosses the line into the deceptive realm. We all want to shed ourselves in the best light. The products we looked at didn’t have any unnatural added ingredients.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that the purpose of this blog is to address whether they are just trendy, exotic sounding fruits designed to make manufacturers money – or whether they have wellness power.
Well, in my non-expert opinion, based on my research presented here, the berries benefit from being in the Berry Family. I did not come across anything negative about them. However, there are no studies proving them to be the super fruit that many people claim them to be.
And, in my opinion, it is always better to eat your foods in closest to whole form. Powders don’t cut it, but there’s nothing wrong with them if you enjoy the taste in your smoothie and want to pick up a few vitamins.
The problem comes when manufacturers deliberately promote their products as health or wellness products when there is no supporting evidence. Açaí products have become popular all over the world, where they have often been promoted for weight-loss and anti-aging purposes.
According to the Nation Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. very little research has been done in people on the health effects of açaí products. Açaí fruit pulp has been used experimentally as an oral contrast agent for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the digestive tract.
The Federal Trade Commission has taken action against companies that marketed açaí weight-loss products in allegedly deceptive ways.
This doesn’t mean they are bad for you! It just means they haven’t been studied enough to show that they have the anti-aging and wellness benefits that many people claim.
They are a Berry. Just like any other Berry. Maybe you get an extra pop of nutrients with them. Maybe not.
As someone who eats primarily clean and plant-based, I will enjoy any of the foods and products we discussed, passing on the ice cream. And feel good about it.
I am going to continue to focus on whole plant foods, and enjoy all kinds of fruit, in season, local and organic when possible. Where I live, that will be mostly blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. If I ever take a trip to Brazil and come across fresh açaí or maqui berries at market, I will definitely give them a try.
I am going to continue to enjoy some açaí or maqui powder in a smoothie every now and then, but I like to switch things up, so it won’t become a staple.
I’m surprising pleased with what I just learned about the frozen açaí purée. I will eat it a little more often topped with more plant-foods such as fruits, seeds and nuts. But I’m doing so because I enjoy the taste and like the idea of picking up some vitamins, minerals and antioxidants along the way. I’m definitely NOT doing so for any specific health or wellness benefit. I’m simply aiming to increase the plant-side of my plates, with foods that I enjoy that have some nutritional benefit. It looks to me to be a healthy option that fits with my clean and plant-based lifestyle.
I will also occasionally enjoy a beautiful açaí bowl at a café along the beach every once in a while, but I’ll pick my toppings carefully and be sure to go for a jog afterwards! I’ll also ask the staff whether the base is a purée or blend, and whether they have nutrition information for it, simply to make an informed decision regarding which café to visit.
How about you? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments, particularly if you ever came across the berries in whole form and what they taste like.
A Few Parting Notes
Nothing in this article is medical advice. I am not a medical expert. Always speak with your medical professional, particularly if you are interested in the supplement form, are pregnant, breastfeeding or taking medication.
Have a beautiful day!
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