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Açaí: from the Amazon to the line-up.

“Once upon a time, amongst the dense forests of northern Brazil, an indigenous tribe went through a terrible food crisis due to an increase in population. As the issue escalated, the tribe’s chief, Itaki, was forced to take drastic measures to assure the well-being of his companions. He decided that every child born from that moment onwards would be sacrificed, in order to avoid having more mouths to feed.

One day, his daughter Iaça gave birth to a baby girl who, according to the new law, also had to be sacrificed. Iaça was devastated and begged her father to find an alternative, but being a fair chief Itaki followed through with his decision and had his granddaughter sacrificed. Iaça locked herself in a hut for several days, asking the god Tupã to show her father a different way of helping their community.

In the following full moon, while laying by the fire, Iaça heard the crying of a child. She approached the door of the hut and saw her daughter in the distance, sitting by the roots of a palm tree. Iaça sprinted to reach the little girl, but as she got closer the image suddenly disappeared. She cried herself to death.

The following morning Iaça’s body was found hugging the trunk of the same tree, with a serene smile on her face and her gaze upwards, where a bunch of dark berries hanged. Itaki ordered for the fruits to be collected and processed, out of which they obtained a nutrient-rich sort of red wine. He called it Açaí (Iaça), in memory of his daughter, and from then on he was able to feed his people and abolished the sacrificing of children.”

From an ancient folklore tale, to the beaches of Brazil and the glasses and bowls of the world, the Açaí berry is an exotic fruit produced by a species of palm tree (Euterpe Oleracea Mart) that grows mainly in the Amazon lowlands of northern of Brazil, along the states of Pará, Maranhão, Acre, Amapá and Rondonia. It has been consumed by the local people for ages, in a variety of ways: from a savoury porridge used as sauce for seafood, to natural medicine, and the smoothie version that has become popular worldwide. The latter variation is renowned not only for its alleged nutritional values but more frivolously for the refreshing sensation it provides.

Açai Producing Regions in Brazil

Being the only producer of açaí berries, the northern region of Brazil—more specifically the surroundings of Belém—monopolizes the market, as there’s little to no competition. Yet, the berry itself brings a challenge to the table: the fact they ferment extremely fast after harvesting. Most of the production is transported to factories and agro-industries within 24 hours following harvest, where they are processed into pulp, frozen, and destined to local, national, and international markets. The biggest importers of the pulp are France, Canada, the US, Spain, and Japan, all of which partook on the 40 million dollar spin of the market in 1995. A palm tree of açaí produces up to 20 kg of fruit per year, but can only be harvested outside of the rainy season. Such circumstance—together with an increase in demand, precarious conditions of extraction, low production, and poor commercialization logistics—has made açai a “not-so-cheap” option to place in the shopping trolley.

The process from tree to mouth consists on soaking the fruit in water to produce a sort of dense wine, in order to extract its revitalized pulp by machinery or manually. The pulp is usually frozen and later blended with Guaraná (another Brazilian berry) syrup and water, creating an ice-cream-like paste, that is thrown into a bowl with granola and fresh fruits. For most, this berry is a complement in the diet, if not a delicacy. Yet, researches made in regions of northern Brazil show that for many local communities of the Amazon the açaí tree is one of the most important plant species, as the fruit makes for more than 40% of their dietary intake by weight. It is considered as the primary non-wood forest product from the river delta of the Amazon (when analyzing the profits it generates) and has been an increasing topic of discussion among nutritionists and sports practitioners all around the world.

The berry has gradually increased its popularity among surfers, as the distribution of the frozen pulp becomes more accessible and, at least in Brazil (where it’s also more financially accessible), it is present in almost every beach kiosk, thus in the life of almost every surfer. Its “functional food” approach was introduced into the world of sports by the enthusiasts of Jiu-Jitsu, who blended the frozen pulp with guaraná syrup and banana, creating an interesting natural stimulant for intense physical exercise. Due to the proximity between Jiu-Jitsu and surfing—it is said that the contortionist positions and explosion movements used in Jiu-Jitsu can improve a surfer’s reflexes on turns and flexibility, so many surfers practice Jiu-Jitsu, and vice-versa—, the concept of an açaí bowl couldn’t stay a secret for long, and was soon found as part of a surfer’s diet, too.

Despite its romantic and comforting eating ritual of sitting by the beach after a routine of exercise to savour a bowl of refreshing cream, it’s the fruit’s alleged nutritional values that backup its commercial and social popularity, and what causes most polemic. The main controversy about açai is regarding its supposedly most important health attribute: the idea that it possesses high antioxidant capacity. This is the primary reason why the fruit is associated with the diet of surfers and other athletes, and also why it’s so often related to the “prevention” of cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, and sometimes even to cancer, or weight loss. Yet, studies made by the Linus Pauling Institute under antioxidant expertise, suggest differently.

While açai may well have high levels of anthocyanin (a component that belongs to an important class of phytochemicals called flavonoids, which are known for “protecting” the plant against UV light and also happen to be responsible for the fruit’s purple coloration), when researching the intensity of these levels and their effects in the human organism, they don’t appear as efficient as they are often promoted to the public.

The class of flavonoids (in this case, anthocyanins) is indeed good at fighting the production free radicals—and thus protecting cells from damaging—, but only when tested in vitro (in tubes). When tests are done in vivo (in the living organism), the concentration of flavonoids in cells are 100 to 1,000 times lower than the concentration of other antioxidants, like vitamin C or E. That is due to the fact that once ingested flavonoids are exposed to stomach acids and enzymes, leading to changes in their chemical structure. Since they’re poorly absorbed by the organism, the percentage of the substance that actually acts on protecting the cells against free-radicals is roughly 2% of what was ingested. But there is a relation between açai (or rather flavonoids) and lowering the risk of disease; only it’s not as intense as commonly advertised.

The theory indicated by the Linus Pauling Institute is that, instead of stimulating antioxidant effects in the body, flavonoids work more subtly as “inhibitors” of a specific group of “cell-signaling enzymes” (called kinases) by adjusting “cell-signaling pathways” (which are chemical reactions that regulate processes like growth, proliferation, and removal of damaged cells). Many results of laboratory experiments suggest that there’s a correlation between an increased activity of kinases and the start of various chronic diseases. Therefore, as cells respond directly to stress by the increasing or decreasing of chemical reactions, when flavonoids inhibit this specific group of enzymes they are indirectly maintaining the normal cell function, thus lowering the risk of disease. In other words, the level of flavonoids that remains active after ingesting a spoonful of açai is not strong enough to fight free-radicals face-to-face but work well inside the cell, where the concentration of flavonoids necessary to influence cell mechanisms is much lower.

Still, the amount of undefined and ongoing research related to antioxidants—as well as the açai berry itself—leaves a lot of room for questioning. So far there’s enough evidence to counteract the popular myth that açai is a “berry from the heavens”—as the indigenous fable and many ads suggest—, but not to deny its indirect (yet not insignificant) relation to surfing, as day in day out the world of sports is bombarded with information about how to enhance performance through nutrition, and the incredible benefits of so-called “superfoods.” Regardless of following the trend or not, being a surfer means you’re bound to bump into a bowl of açaí sooner or later, and when you do hopefully there’ll be a lot more than just a refreshing sensation to assimilate.

What are your thoughts on the Açaí berry? 
Comment below! 

Up next: Myths and Legends of the Azores Islands

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