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plant profile: Acai

Açai

Euterpe oleracea

Bunch of Açai Fruit
Description:

Açai Grove -natural habitatA slender, graceful palm of the Arecaceae family, native to the lowland inundated forests of eastern south America, especially Brazil. The Açai palm develops several stems from its base and takes about 4-5 years to mature. It can reach a height of about 15-25m. Commonly each rootstock gives rise to about 4-8 stems, but it is possible for a single seed to give rise to more than 20 individual stems, all deriving from the same root system. The roots are especially adapted to the seasonally inundated and waterlogged conditions of its habitat, by developing special root structures known as pneumatophores. These vertically erect pencil like shoots grow from the submerged horizontal roots that are below the soil. They not only help to stabilize the plant and protect the soil from erosion, but also help the roots to obtain oxygen since they will be exposed to the ground above the mud or flooded ground.

The leaves of the Açai palm are typical pinnate palm fronds that arise from a reddish crown. It produces 4-8 bunches of fruit throughout the year, though fruit yield is heaviest during the dry season, while most of the flowering takes place during the wet season. The fruits grow in bunches of small, black berries, each with a large stone in its center and a minimal covering of purple-red fruit pulp. The individual bunches can weigh up to 6kg each. The fruits are an important food source of rodents and birds, who also help to spread the seeds. Due to their general usefulness this palm is often planted near human habitations.

History

Açai juice and smoothies have become all the rave among health conscious consumers in the US. But in the Amazon it is has long been a staple part of the diet - it is so ubiquitous and consumed in such large quantities, especially among indigenous people and riberenos, the river communities of the lowland rainforest, that it is often referred to as 'poor man's food'.

Açai porridgeRecently though the young fitness crowd and surfers have discovered it as their new superfood. Amazing qualities are ascribed to it - almost everything from better looking skin to anti-cancer activity - boosting not only the immune system but also energy levels in general, and sex drive in particular. No wonder it sells like hot cakes. If you google Açai you will instantly get a return of 5 million (!) pages - mostly advertising various products derived from this magic bullet. There is no end to the hype. But is it really true? Searching for solid evidence based on actual studies one is baffled to find - precious little. There has been almost no research on this fruit at all. The hype appears to be mostly the product of a very clever marketing campaign, touting the incredible virtues of an exotic superfood - in true food fad fashion.

Not that the fruit is bad for you, far from it. It does indeed have quite an impressive amount of anthocyanins, the antioxidant substance that gives it its colour - same as it does in blue berries. The actual amount of this substance is said to be twice as high in Açai than in blueberries, however, it comes in a very unstable form which is highly liable to deteriorate very rapidly after picking. It also contains protein, calcium, Vitamin B1 A and E as well as a good amount of calories - but despite the superlative claims its overall profile is not that outstanding. In the Amazon the berry itself, although a widely popular food/drink stuff, has never been used medicinally.

Processing Açai for juiceTo prepare the juice, the berries are usually soaked in water to soften the outer skin so that the pulp can easily be separated from seed. The resulting mash is a deep purple, shiny thick mass, which traditionally is mixed with the pulp of manioc, a starchy vegetable, to make a filling porridge. Or it is diluted with water or other fruit juices to make the famous energy drink that has recently become so popular among urbanites throughout the Americas. It is also often consumed as a sort of fruit mash with granola and other fruits as an energizing 'health food'.

Since colour, consistency and nutritional value deteriorates so quickly, it is necessary to preserve the fruit pulp for export. The usual method is to pasteurize it, which however, destroys some of the fragile beneficial compounds. It is then frozen or freeze-dried, which further reduces any potential benefits. Thus, providing the juice is made in clean condition with clean water and equipment at source, its nutritional value will be a whole lot greater than any of its processed derivatives found in juice bars or on supermarket shelves thousands of miles from its point of origin.

Belem Açai MarketBut business is booming. Dietary crazes have a way of catching on that defies any rationality. In Belem, the main market town in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon has an area solely dedicated to the sale of Açai berries known as the 'Feira do Açai where over 100 vendors sell 200000kg of berries DAILY during the dry season. And there is talk of substantially increasing business by planting more Açai trees. (One project plans to plant 5 billion Açai trees in the next 10 years!)

Açai is also economically important for other reasons. It is currently the main source of palm hearts, locally known as 'palmito', which is part of the traditional Amazonian diet, though not significant from a nutritional point of view. Palm hearts also have a sizeable export market, mostly in France. Originally Açai's cousin 'Euterpe edulis' was harvested to obtain the hearts, but the harvest from this species is highly unsustainable, since it only grows one stem and the tree has to be cut and killed in order to obtain the heart. Euterpe oleracea on the other hand produces several stems and cutting one or two encourages the growth of new shoots. Thus Euterpe oleracea has now largely replaced E. edulis as a source of palm hearts.

Rhynchophorus palm beetleLocally further use is made of the palm fronds, which are used for thatching roofs. A secondary product derived from Açai is a local speciality, which although highly nutritious and rich in protein is unlikely to win much favour in any health craze markets abroad - cut down stumps of Açai (e.g. after harvesting the palm hearts) are urinated upon in order to attract a species of Rhynchophorus palm beetle, which prefers to lay its eggs in a thus prepared environment. Just a few weeks later 3-4 pounds of nice, fat beetle grub larvae can be harvested and consumed with relish.

Some environmentalists welcome the spur in popularity of the Açai Tree as they see it as a sustainable non-timber forest product that can be successfully marketed to bring much needed economic benefits to poor forest and river dwelling communities without threatening the forest. However, whether the production will in fact be sustainable in the long run remains to be seen. The habitat of this palm is limited to riverine habitats and although it occurs naturally in proliferation, forming extensive groves, it is not clear where plantations will be established. Will established forest be cleared in order to grow this superfood for export or will existing patches (e.g. currently used to grow soy) be converted to Açai production? Also, as yet there is little evidence that although sustainable management and harvesting methods are possible, that they are actually much employed. Instead, palm heart harvesting is still often done by clear cutting large areas instead of just taking out individual trunks. Some hope that Açai berries will eventually for outweigh the market for palm hearts in economic importance, but it looks as though there will always be a market for them, both locally and abroad.

As for the current Açai craze - it is doubtful that it will last. Marketing buffs are very good at marketing a la 'you can hype anything' and 'sex sells'. The technique is not a new one. Once upon a time, not too long ago, even tobacco was hyped and marketed as the new wonder drug that would keep you young forever and improve your sex drive. That craze stayed around, mainly thanks to the addictive nature of tobacco, but exotic fruit crazes come and go - noni, mangosteen, kiwi - they all were once perceived as miracle nutrition bombs. No doubt they have their virtues, but are they really worth the money that millions of consumers are prepared to pay for the promise of 'youth in a bottle'? Personally, I would prefer the local heroes - wild blueberries for example, fresh from the bush, no processing required and all nutritional benefits intact.

Medicinal uses

Constituents:

1-4% protein, 7-11% fats, 25% sugar, 0.05% calcium, 0.033% phosphorous, and 0.0009% iron. It also has some sulphur, traces of vitamin B1 and some vitamin A and E. It also delivers 88 to 265 calories per 100 grams, depending on the preparation method. n addition to the standard vitamins and minerals found in most fruits, the main plant chemicals in Açai fruit include epicatechin, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, gallic acid, (+)-catechin, protocatechuic acid, ellagic acid, p-coumaric acid, ferulic acid, vanillic acid, cyanidin, and pelaronidin 3-glucoside. (source: rain-tree database)

Medicinal uses:

In the Brazil the oil of the fruit is obtained and used to treat diarrhea; a root decoction is considered beneficial in cases of jaundice and to boost blood production. The grate fruit rind is infused to make a topical wash for skin ulcers; and the seeds are crushed and prepared in an infusion for fevers. In the Peruvian Amazon, an infusion of the toasted crushed seeds is used for fever, and a decoction of the root is used for malaria, diabetes, hepatitis and jaundice, hair loss, hemorrhages, liver and kidney diseases, menstrual pain, and muscle pain. (source: rain-tree)

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