The acai bowls at your local café or neighborhood breakfast spot look pretty and seem healthy with their purple hue and scattering of fresh fruit as toppings. But are they truly healthy? This blog will explain the health benefits of acai and if you should add them to your diet.
What is an acai berry?
The smooth, creamy finished product of an acai bowl is a sharp contrast from the acai berry it originates from.
Acai berries, which grow on the acai palm tree, are native to the tropical rainforests in Central America and South America. The tree is known for two sources of food – hearts of palm and the acai berry. To the naked eye, acai berries don’t even look edible. The grape-like berries grow in clusters under leaves and contain a large pit that accounts for about 70 percent of the berry.
Once harvested, the berries soak in water and the purple flesh is separated from the pit by hand. The leftover pulp is then eaten fresh, dried in powder form or immediately frozen to preserve its freshness. Acai berries are high in omega fats, which makes them turn rancid if not eaten or processed within 24 hours. This is also why you’ll never see fresh acai berries at your local grocery store.
Although acai berries are known as a frozen food or part of a smoothie bowl, the fruit was originally eaten with fish, game meats or in soups.
Acai berries differ from other berries in that they’re more acidic and earthy than sweet. Think of the flavor as a cross between a tart berry and unsweetened chocolate. The lack of sweetness is why acai bowls tend to have other fruits naturally high in sugar or added sweeteners to balance the acidity.
The origin of acai berries dates back thousands of years in the Amazon, although the concept of acai bowls didn’t come to fruition until the 1980s in Brazil. Before then, acai berries had to be eaten fresh because they can spoil quickly.
As food manufacturers began to freeze them, acai berries traveled throughout Brazil to coastal areas like Rio De Janeiro where Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu founder Carlos Gracie mixed the berries with other fruit to hide the earthy taste. This movement later hit Southern California in the 2000s and quickly spread across the country.
Health benefits of acai
Acai berries, along with other bright-colored fruits and vegetables, get their color from flavonoids. These compounds, which are a part of a larger group of phytonutrients, have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Flavonoids assist with cellular defense and repair, can filter UV lights and serve as detoxifying agents.
Anthocyanins, one of six main types of flavonoids, are found in abundance in acai berries. Studies have shown anthocyanins to be beneficial in lowering blood pressure and reducing risk of heart disease. There is also preliminary research regarding the benefits in preventing neurological diseases such as dementia.
One specific study published in an American Heart Association journal analyzed the effect berries, such as acai berries, have on systolic blood pressure. The results concluded eating a cup of berries helped reduce blood pressure levels by an average of 4.1 mm Hg.
Researchers have also conducted several studies with mice and rats to learn more about acai berries. One study found eating açaí may be beneficial for the prevention of colon cancer, while another study of rats discovered eating acai may help protect against memory loss during aging.
You may not associate fruits with fat, but acai berries contain healthy omega 3, omega 6 and omega 9 fats. Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are both essential polyunsaturated fats, meaning your body doesn’t produce them and you need to get them from your diet. Omega 9 is a monounsaturated fat your body produces.
Omega fats are beneficial to heart health, as they can help regulate your cholesterol, maintain cardiovascular health and increase circulation.
What are acai bowls made of?
All acai bowls start the same – with acai berry puree. From there, the options are unlimited.
Many bowls use a base of frozen puree blended with other fruits such as banana or strawberry. Some brands will use plant-based milks such as soymilk, almond milk or coconut milk to improve the consistency.
The rest of an acai bowl is then determined by toppings, including the following:
- Sliced berries
- Sliced bananas
- Coconut flakes
- Cacao nibs
- Nut butter
- Nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts)
- Seeds (chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds)
- Tropical fruits (mango, kiwi, passion fruit)
- Drizzle of honey
Acai bowl nutrition
Ultimately, the nutritional content of acai bowls depends on the ingredients added to frozen acai berry puree or acai berry powder.
A 100-gram serving of acai berry puree has the following nutritional information:
- Fat: 5 g
- Saturated fat: 1 g
- Calories: 70
- Dietary fiber: 3 g
- Added sugars: 0 g
- Protein: 1 g
- Calcium: 23 mg
- Potassium: 121 mg
- Vitamin A: 26 mg
Acai berries contain trace amounts of nutrients, as the calcium, potassium and vitamin A provided is just 2 percent of the recommended daily value.
How many calories are in an acai bowl?
Again, the caloric information of acai bowls depends on the contents of the bowl. Most people assume acai bowls are healthy and nutritious due to the presence of berries but, like most things, it’s easy to turn a healthy food into something unhealthy.
That said, a typical acai bowl can range from 200 calories to 500 calories, although some bowls can pack as many as 1,000 calories. Jamba Juice’s iteration of an acai bowl has 520 calories due to the presence of soymilk, granola and additional fruit (strawberry, blueberry, banana). Likewise, the Warrior bowl from Vitality Bowls has 720 calories.
To save on calories, try browsing your local grocery store to see if they sell frozen acai bowls. Usually, you can find ready-to-eat bowls that come with frozen acai puree and other berries, such as strawberries or blueberries. In a separate pouch, the box will include toppings such as granola or coconut flakes. Costco sells a frozen acai bowl that has just 180 calories, and Trader Joe’s has a version with 260 calories.
In either case, it’s important to be mindful of how calories can add up – even when fruit is involved. Throwing in bananas and berries may seem healthy, but this is an easy way to add hundreds of calories – a medium banana has 110 calories and a cup of berries has about 50 calories.
Acai bowl sugar content
The main drawback of acai bowls is the sugar content. When reading food labels, much of the attention gravitates toward added sugars – and for good reason – but some acai bowls have dozens and dozens of total sugars.
In theory, added sugars may seem worse because they’re full of empty calories and don’t carry any nutritional value. But sugar is sugar, whether it occurs naturally or is manufactured in a lab. For example, many people top acai bowls with granola. Granola sounds healthy, but there’s a reason it tastes good – there are added sugars in the form of cane sugar, honey or maple syrup. Consuming too much sugar can lead to many health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Usually, the addition of fruits, coupled with sugary toppings, can pack 50 to 100 grams of total sugars in one bowl. Vitality Bowls version of a large acai bowl has 64 grams of sugar. The same bowl mentioned above at Jamba Juice packs a whopping 65 grams of sugar. Some acai bowls at the grocery store (Costco and Trader Joe’s) have less than 18 grams of sugar per serving, including just 2 grams of added sugars.
DIY acai bowls
Here’s the bottom line with acai bowls: They can be healthy as long as you’re mindful of what goes in it in regards to total sugars. The best way to control this is to create your own bowl at home.
Consider these simple tips. Choose unsweetened plant-based milks to blend with your acai puree. To help offset the earthy taste of acai and to add natural sweetness, consider adding vegetables such as pumpkin. Including fibrous vegetables such as kale and carrots is an easy way to add fiber, vitamins and minerals and while saving on calories. You can also toss in a spoonful or Greek yogurt to improve the consistency.
Check out this easy low-sugar acai bowl recipe to try at home, which includes acai puree, zucchini and protein powder.
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