Acai berries come from the acai palm tree (Euterpe oleracea) found in Central and South America. The acai berry has been used by native Central and South Americans for centuries -- it makes up 42% of the region's total food intake.
A relative of the blueberry and cranberry, the acai berry has become popular in the United States because it's believed to have tremendous health benefits. It's touted as the latest "super fruit" due to high antioxidant levels. An antioxidant is a substance that protects the body's cells from damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals.
Acai berries contain anthocyanins and flavonoids, both powerful antioxidants that protect the body from environmental stressors (noise, pollution, traffic) and reduce the effects of free radicals. By reducing the effects of free radicals, these antioxidants help lower the risk of heart disease and cancer, reduce inflammation and possibly slow the spread of cancer cells.
A recent study found that the antioxidant capacity of freeze-dried acai berries have the highest antioxidant activity of any food reported to date. A separate study conducted at the University of Florida showed that extracts from acai berries generated a self-destruct response in up to 86% of leukemia cells tested. A similar study found that 12 to 24 hours after consumption of acai pulp and applesauce, antioxidant activity in the blood increased significantly. This means that acai consumption can stimulate the body's antioxidant level and its protective effects from cancer, heart disease and possibly other illnesses.
When eaten as a food, acai berry appears to be safe. However, since it hasn't been sufficiently researched, side effects and dosing of the supplement form have not been determined.
The acai berry is sold in supplement form in various health food stores and supermarkets in the United States. It also can be found as an ingredient in some juices, drinks, liquors, jellies, applesauce and ice cream. The supplements cost about $7 for 60 capsules and the food items range from $4 to $15. More cost-effective antioxidants include blueberries and cranberries, which can be purchased at your local grocery store as juice or a food item for as little as $1.50.