Why acai is enjoying a berry good time

Fresh berries from the acai palm tree are frozen within 48 hours of being harvested. Photo: Eli Duke/Flickr

Last year, Instagram feeds were inundated with thousands of images of gorgeous acai bowls. Pronounced ah-sigh-ee, acai bowls are multi-layered and colourful, and typically begin with deep purple acai pulp, which is then topped with all sorts of extras like coconut shavings, granola, lots of fruit, nuts, caramel, and sometimes even marshmallows! The Internet went crazy for these (almost) too-pretty-to-eat brekkie bowls, and there are now nearly 550,000 posts on Instagram under #acaibowl!

But just what is acai and what’s the big deal about it?

Acai is a berry that is primarily grown in Brazil and is the fruit of the acai palm. It looks like a blueberry but is rock hard.

Acai berries have long been an important food source for the indigenous people around the Amazon basin, but for many other people around the world, the berry is a relatively new discovery that caught on after Dr Nicholas Perricone, a New York Times best-selling author, dermatologist and nutrionist, talked about it on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005.

This was followed by an appearance by Dr Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon, who also talked about the berry on Oprah’s show in 2008.

Acai berries are high in anthocyanins (or at least higher than other berries like strawberries, blueberries and cranberries), a powerful antioxidant. Anthocyanins are found in dark red or blue foods and are associated with fighting cell degeneration.

Fresh berries from the acai palm tree are frozen within 48 hours of being harvested. Photo: Eli Duke/Flickr
Fresh berries from the acai palm tree are frozen within 48 hours of being harvested. Photo: Eli Duke/Flickr

The acai berry has also been touted as a curative with healing properties that aid in weight loss, improve the appearance of skin and cure everything from erectile dysfunction to arthritis. While a preliminary study published in the Nutrition Journal in 2011 did indicate that eating acai pulp might reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels in overweight people, this hasn’t been substantiated further.

In fact, a quick search on the Internet yields few results from reputable sources about the purported benefits of acai.

While there is little scientific evidence to back up the claims of acai devotees, the acai bowl trend continues to show no signs of abating.

And there’s nothing to indicate that it’s bad for you – the acai berry, like most berries, has a lot of Vitamin C and fibre; it is just not the miracle fruit being touted by rogue distributors.

It is also relatively low in sugar, so incorporating it into your diet could be a good way of getting your daily dose of fruits (although beware the high sugar content when you top it up with other sugar-high fruits or sweets).

In Malaysia, local boys and best friends Yeoh Jun Yong and Cheah Wen Khyn recently launched Cabana Acai Bar in Publika Shopping Mall, serving up acai bowls and acai smoothies to Malaysians keen to latch on to this growing trend.

Yeoh (left) and Cheah opened Cabana Acai Bar to spread their love for acai bowls.
Yeoh Jun Yong (left) and Cheah Wen Khyn opened Cabana Acai Bar to spread their love for acai bowls.

Interestingly, the friends are both amateur mixed martial artists who stumbled upon acai bowls after eating it in Singapore during a training stint.

“We tried it before our training sessions, and it filled us up, but didn’t give us that tired, lethargic feeling after. So the acai bowl was perfect for us, because it was indulgent, it tasted great, but it was also very nutritious,” says Yeoh.

Cabana serves acai bowls made from acai pulp, sourced directly from Brazil. The acai pulp is squeezed out of the berries and then frozen, so it can last about a year so long as it is kept in a freezer, but still retains its nutritional value and benefits.

Acai berries have to be processed within 48 hours of being harvested, otherwise they wither away and are basically useless.

Because acai berries have a neutral taste, manufacturers in Brazil traditionally add a sweetening agent – the one used in Cabana’s acai pulp is derived from guarana, a Brazilian plant from the maple family.

At Cabana, the raw acai pulp is then blended with soy milk and fruits like bananas and apples, to give it the desired taste and texture.

The acai bowls are priced from RM12.90 for a small bowl and include Cabana’s own concoctions like Rio classic, which makes use of bananas and granola in addition to the acai base; and tropical thunder, which incorporates loads of fruits like bananas, kiwis, strawberries, mango, granola and coconut shavings.

You can even have a DIY bowl, adding your favourite fruit and toppings like peanut butter, chia seeds or even goji berries!

Small bowls only work out to 150 calories while medium bowls are about 250 calories and the large bowls clock in at 400 calories, which means they could technically be a meal replacement if you’re a light eater.

There is also the option of getting your dose of acai in the form of smoothies (all priced at RM16.90), like the peanut butter and jelly, which makes use of acai pulp, strawberries, peanut butter, soy milk and bananas.

So what does it taste like?

Acai bowls became an Instagram sensation because of how pretty they look. At Cabana, the acai bowls are packed with acai pulp, fruits and other toppings.
Acai bowls became an Instagram sensation because of how pretty they look. At Cabana, the acai bowls are packed with acai pulp, fruits and other toppings.

I had a sample of a DIY medium acai bowl, which comes with acai pulp and granola. I chose mangoes, strawberries, blueberries and goji berries as additional toppings and sure enough, my bowl was aesthetically one of the most pleasing meal items I have ever clamped eyes on.

Texturally, acai pulp tastes a little like ice cream but a lot less creamy. The pulp also has a deep, almost chocolatey flavour to it and the other ingredients work to enhance this base flavour – the granola gives it a lovely crunch and the fruits bring acidity and sweetness to the offering.

Overall, it’s an easy snack to eat in one setting (although it’s really, really cold) and if you’re willing to forgo an ice-cream, this makes a great stand-in.

Cabana's acai pulp is flavoured with guarana, a plant sweetener, soy milk and fruits. Photo: Cabana
This is what Cabana's raw frozen acai pulp looks like, before it is blended with fruits and soy milk. Photo: Cabana

Yeoh and Cheah are convinced that acai bowls are going to be around for the long haul, and cite the berries’ successful foray into the US market as an example of the impact they’re hoping it will have here.

Although Cabana is only a month old, they already have plans to open more outlets in other malls by the end of the year.

“We don’t want it to be a fad ideally. Because, think about it, it’s just the same as any other fruit. Are strawberries a fad? Or blueberries? No. So, we want people to consume it just like they would fruits – we want it to be at that stage,” says Yeoh.

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