What is Acai?
The first that you need to know about açai is the proper way to pronounce it. It sounds like “ahh-sigh-ee”. It’s funny because when people ask me what I do and I say that I sell açai they look at me funny. Then I ask, “ have you ever heard of açai?” And many times the answer is “no”. But, I know from experience that they know what it is, they just haven’t heard it pronounced that way. Maybe assii or akkii? So, now you know, ahh-sigh-ee!
You may be wondering where açai comes from and why you can’t eat the actual fresh berries. You may also be wondering what’s the big deal with açai? We field these questions all the time. When we do demos of our products in retail stores we have the pleasure of introducing the amazing açai to more and more people. When we started this company in 2006, nine out of ten people had never heard of açai. Today, the script is flipped. Now, nine of ten have heard of it and most have tasted it at some point.
The açai fruit grows at the top of a tall slender palm tree in the Amazon Rainforest in South America. Although it is commonly called a berry, it is actually a drupe. Açai is 90% seed and the fruit is a dense purple flesh that covers the seed. The açai palm tree is of the species Euterpe oleracea Mart. Açai fruit looks like a blueberry but is hard to the touch since the seed is covered with a thin mesocarp. The fruit grows on bracts at the top of the tree below the palm leaves on what’s called the infructescence.
For the most part, açai is harvested by natives that live along the riverbanks of the Amazon River and its offshoots. These natives are called Caboclo or riberinhos and they have been harvesting açai for hundreds of years. For them, açai is one of their main sources of nourishment. Over the last 20 years, the harvesting of the açai fruit has become one of their main sources of income. An experienced harvester can yield up to 180 kilograms of açai fruit per day. In many cases, the entire family is involved in the harvesting of the fruit. The harvesting is usually organized in cooperatives of families that work together as a group in sourcing, harvesting and delivering the acai fruit to one location for the convenience of selling it.
The acai fruit is very delicate and deteriorates quickly. Once picked, the acai fruit will begin to oxidize within 24-48 hours depending on the conditions that it is kept in. Therefore, it is imperative that the fruit is delivered and processed as soon as possible to preserve all of the nutritional properties. The processing includes washing, softening, depulping, and freezing the fruit. The result is a dark purple fruit puree that is thick and creamy. The puree is much different than fruits that are mostly made up of water because acai has a high-fat content. Acai has a high omega fatty-acai profile that is similar to olive oil.
Although you can find the acai palm tree throughout the Amazon Rainforest, most of the fruit is harvested from Brazil. In the northern region of the country, near the city of Belem in the state of Para, is where you will find the best-tasting acai. In the city of Belem, you will find hundreds of stores that sell freshly harvested acai in liquid form. Native Paraenses consume more acai than milk. It is consumed much differently than the rest of the world because they have access to the fresh fruit. It is commonly eaten unsweetened with fresh fish at room temperature or slightly chilled. It has a very earthy flavor and it takes a little getting used to. But once you acquire the taste it is very addicting.
There are several different varieties of açai. Four main types are usually harvested: tuíra, preto, paró, and branco. Tuíra is the most popular variation. A well-ripened bunch is dark purple, almost black and covered in a grayish color as you may see with blueberries. The juice that is produced from the fruit is characterized by its thickness which is related to its percentage of solids. The three (3) types are; fino 9%, medio 12%, grosso 15%. The results are estimated at 0.3 to 1.5 liters of juice for a kilogram of fruit – depending on the thickness. In the rural areas of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest, the nativos depend on acai as a mainstay in the regional diet. The local saying “sem açai continuo com fome” (without acai I’m still hungry) exemplifies the appreciation of acai to validate a meal.
Now that we have discussed what acai is and where it comes from, let’s talk about the evolution of acai in the United States. As previously mentioned, you can obtain the fresh fruit or fresh juice in the United States because the fruit puree must be frozen to preserve it. As such, the acai that is imported into the United States is either frozen puree, freeze-dried powder or in a juice form that is preserved in some fashion. The most popular and versatile form is the frozen pulp or puree. Logistically it is more difficult because it needs to be shipped and stored frozen. But the frozen form is the closest to the original native form of the fruit.
There are many different ways to use acai but the overall favorite is the acai bowl. Since acai is thicker than normal fruit juice, it can be made into a creamy base for a bowl. Acai fruit contains omega-fatty acids from the inner seed that gives it a creamy texture. Blending it while frozen will create a thick and creamy base that is like a sorbet. The trick is to not let it defrost too much before you put it in the blender. Another trick is to add banana to the base. The banana tastes great with acai and it also adds texture. Hint: a frozen banana is even better. I recommend blending it so that it is too thick to pour it out of the blender like a smoothie. The best consistency is that it is so thick that you need to spoon the acai out of the blender and into the bowl.
After you have your acai base for your bowl, the next thing you need to consider is your toppings. The typical toppings are sliced fruits such as banana, strawberry, blueberries, pineapple, kiwi. Granola is an excellent topping for an acai bowl. Another great topping to add to your acai bowl is seeds. Creative acai bowls use almond butter, peanut butter, hazelnut butter, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. Coconut is another preferred topping for acai bowls.
Now, after reading this you know more about acai than 95% of the U.S. population. There is much more to know about acai. More importantly, you need to know about the health benefits that acai has to offer. The fruit has amazing nutritional properties. You will be able to find this information in our other blog posts or on our website.
For information on our acai products and where to find them, please review our website.