These days, Acai bowls are the hottest thing on the streets.
It’s been called “the healthiest breakfast on the planet” by some news outlets.
The hype machine is operating at full capacity for this South American berry. It’s a superfood that will help you lose weight, extend your lifespan, and help defend your body against aging!
Are these claims true?
Clearly the people marketing acai berries and bowls don’t care – as long as they can hype the crap out of it, there’s money to be made.
Hell, I walked down the street the other day and saw a place named “Acai Ya Later.”
If you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness for a while, it’s no secret I’m a fan of a well done pun, even if they need to mispronounce “acai” to make it work.
Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of bogus health claims, even if there are puns involved!
So today I’m gonna dig into the facts about acai berries, acai bowls, and eternal life from fruit.
No acai supplement to sell you. No “superfood” claims.
Just the truth. And funny gifs. Always gifs.
What is an acai berry?
The acai berry is the small purple fruit found on the acai palm.
They come from Brazil and other northern regions of South America. 80% of the berry is actually the seed, which for the most part people don’t eat.
This leaves only about 20% for the flesh and skin of the berry, the stuff people generally do eat.
Why should you care about acai?
Generally, the answer lies in the word “antioxidants”.
I know, “Why the hell do I care about antioxidants?”
Antioxidants are substances that fight a process called oxidation.
When your body interacts with too much sunlight, toxins in smoke, air pollution, alcohol, and other challenges, it can create “free radicals,” AKA molecules with an unpaired electron.
And these molecules? They are single and ready to mingle. So when they collide with an electron that’s already paired, they more or less steal it.
This molecule then has to steal another electron, and the process continues. You can see how this could get out of hand. While some free radicals are normal, too many in our bodies can indeed lead to cancer .
Note that “Free Radicals” are different from “the New Radicals,” a one-hit wonder:
Which brings me back to antioxidants.
Depending on the particular molecule, antioxidants either provide the free radical with an extra electron, or break it down altogether.
The point: antioxidants neutralize free radicals, making them harmless.
That’s why antioxidants are important.
In our quest to get to the bottom of the hype on acai, antioxidants will prove critical. But I want to address an even more important point before we get there.
How do you pronounce “acai”?
We need to talk about how you actually pronounce “acai?” I’ve seen it make all sorts of people tongue tied.
And you want to sound important and all-knowing at your next cocktail party, right?
It’s “”ah-sigh-ee.” Like this:
Often times, when exotic fruit is brought to the West, it’s name is changed so it’s easier to pronounce.
Story time: This happened with the fruit “kiwi,” actually called “Yang-tao” in China. But marketers banked on “kiwi” being easier to say than Yang-tao, pronounced “yahng tou” in English. So they named it after the famous kiwi bird from New Zealand.
And boom, that’s why you know kiwi fruit as “kiwis.”
Such a name swap didn’t happen with acai.
Acai has kept its original Brazilian name, which is why us English speakers trip up pronouncing it.
Which is a logical segue to our next section.
Why are acai bowls so popular?
The credit of the acai berry being popular outside of Brazil can be attributed to Ryan and Jeremy Black, two brothers from Southern California.
Together with their friend Ed Nichols they realized the acai berry could have a potential gigantic market in the West.
The Black brothers and Nichols came across acai on a trip to Brazil. The locals encouraged them to try it, proclaiming the health benefits of the berry: an energy boost, kickstarted immunity, and detoxification.
They got HOOKED on these things, and from then on, whenever Ryan, Jeremy, and Ed were in Brazil, they would search for an icy acai bowl.
On one such trip, the Black brothers and Nichols discussed how great it would be to enjoy acai back in the States.
Strange fruit from Brazil with antioxidants?
Exotic, healthy, and easy to make grandiose claims about?
And that’s why acai bowls can now be found in every city in America with a punny store name.
What’s in an acai bowl? What are some typical acai bowl recipes?
In Brazil, the acai (in the form of frozen pulp) is generally served in a bowl with granola and bananas. Sometimes a fourth ingredient would be used, the Amazonian fruit guarana, which contains more caffeine than coffee.
How about here in the states? That’s where acai bowls get cray.
You’ll for sure get acai berries, granola, and banana. And maybe guarana. But how about some of the following:
- Apple Juice
- Almond Milk
- Almond Butter
- Mango Juice
- Peanut Butter
- Soy Milk
Pick a handful of the above, mix them in a bowl, and BOOM! Acai bowl.
One thing most ingredients listed or referenced have in common, is they are carbohydrate and/or sugar heavy. Some, like agave and honey, are more or less just sugar.
Which brings me to an important and really fun point:
Fact checking the acai bowl hype
There are a lot of health claims associated to the acai berry. Some of which make my eyebrows raise. Others make me nod approvingly. And one or two that make my soul hurt.
Which is why I’d like to introduce my new favorite Nerd Fitness game, “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire”:
CLAIM #1: “There are good antioxidants in acai berries.”
Acai berries are indeed high in antioxidants. Which is great, for the reasons we talked about earlier. When people talk about the benefits of the acai berry, it more or less comes down to antioxidants.
I support this claim. Now, I will mention just about any berry you pick (blackberry, blueberry, raspberry) is also a great source of antioxidants. But I won’t completely steal the acai berry’s thunder.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #2: “Acai berries are nutrient dense.”
REALITY: Also true!
Acai berries contain as much Vitamin C as blueberries. Plus acai is a great source of Vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and E. They also contain plenty of minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, and copper.
Good stuff there. As a proponent of eating REAL food that are nutrient dense, I would throw acai into that category. An acai berry is REAL food.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #3: “Acai berries aid digestion.”
REALITY: eh, sort of.
Fiber aids digestion. And acai skin and pulp contain fiber. So acai aids digestion?
Sure, that’s true. But it’s not the complete picture. All sort of things contain fiber, like every other berry you’ve ever heard of. Plus, some food like carrots, are more much fibrous than the acai berry.
There is no special acai ingredient to improve digestion. If fiber is what you’re after, an acai berry isn’t a bad decision. But it’s not the single best option.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #4: “Acai has anti-aging powers.”
REALITY: Bollocks! Hogwash!
Antioxidants are a good thing, because keeping your cells healthy and clear of free radicals is important. But are your wrinkles going to smooth out with the help of a berry? Or really, anything shy of botox? Don’t buy into this.
Acai have no special anti-aging magic. If the claim is antioxidants reverse aging, sure, in that they keep cells healthy. But not in the “I’m going to reverse time” way.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #5: “Acai will improve libido.”
Will eating nutritiously lead to improved health? Which will improve how your body functions? Which could include libido? Sure.
Is there a berry out there that will make you awesome in the bedroom? No.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #6: “Acai berries help weight loss.”
“Acai is a nutrient-rich source of antioxidants, much like many other fruits, but there is nothing magical about the fruit to cause weight loss.” Thank you David Grotto, RD.
Promises like better health, improved libido, and weight loss sell well. That’s why you’ll come across them. But as the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Naturally, the idea that a berry will make you lose weight is silly. It depends on what else you are consuming, and in what quantities, in addition to the acai berry. I’m going to cover this more extensively below.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
Can I lose weight eating acai bowls?
It truly depends on how you used to eat and what else you eat every day.
To help paint this picture, let’s talk about the carbohydrates and sugars in an acai bowl.
Let’s start with the traditional acai bowl: acai puree, granola, and some banana. That will run about 355 calories, including 50 grams of carbohydrates, with 18 grams of those being sugar.
For comparison, the average bagel from a deli will have about 350 calories and 50 grams of carbs.
And that’s just a traditional bowl: what about the Americanized versions?
Acai puree often has sugar added to it, since the acai berry itself isn’t too sweet. Plus, an acai place might also pour things like honey and agave into the bowl. And don’t forget fruit contains quite a bit of sugar.
When you add it all up, it becomes a lot.
Let’s analyze the 12 oz. Acai Berry Bowl from “Juice It Up”: acai puree, a strawberry juice blend, actual strawberries, blueberries, and guarana. This rakes up:
- 340 calories
- 66 grams of carbohydrates
- 60 grams of sugar (more than a can of Coke!)
If you called this meal a “carb bomb” or “sugar bomb,” I wouldn’t disagree with you. And none of this factors in additional toppings like coconut flakes or granola.
You can see how all of this adds up quickly. Acai bowls with over 90 grams of sugar are not unheard of.
That’s why I cringe when I read the Huffington Post’s article that acai bowls are the world’s healthiest breakfast. I have no problem if you eat an acai bowl for breakfast.
But don’t let the good attributes of a South American berry distract you. Carbs, calories, and sugar don’t count less just because there are antioxidants present.
Eating a pile of pureed carbs, topped with carbs, and sprinkled with carbs, might be only a slightly better decision than a bowl of Lucky Charms.
All of this to say: be smart and learn about what you’re eating! Know the caloric, carbohydrate and sugar makeup of the food you eat, even if it’s “super.”
What’s a better plan for breakfast?
If you are going to eat breakfast, shift your focus from a pile of carbs to something loaded with protein and healthy fat. It’ll help fill you up in a more calorically-efficient manner, provide your muscles with rebuilding fuel, and not spike your insulin levels like sugar/carbs can do.
Eggs are a breakfast staple that Team Nerd Fitness wholly endorses. You can read our five favorite quick recipes here.
If you need some other examples for meal ideas, check out our post on 10 meals that can be made in 10 minutes.
But that’s only if you actually want to eat breakfast. You can also…
SKIP BREAKFAST. Some people forgo breakfast all together! Like me. It’s called intermittent fasting. It lets you make one less meal decision for the day, you’re less likely to overeat in a day, and it can help manage your insulin levels.
So start with protein in the morning. Or skip breakfast. But personally I wouldn’t start with a bucket of sugar in puree form if I was trying to lose weight.
Bummed out that your superfood breakfast isn’t that super? I hear ya. There’s nothing worse than TRYING to be healthy and discovering the food you thought was helping you lose weight is actually making things worse! Crap. Fun fact: I used to eat tons of granola bars and thought they were healthy (nope, carb and sugar bombs – might as well have been a Snickers!)
So whether it’s making sense of healthy breakfasts, learning how to eat better the rest of the day, or even just having an accountability partner to check in with, Nerd Fitness has helped thousands.
If you are looking for a personal coach that will help you stay accountable without judgement, help guide you to make better food choices, and get you results results that stick, check out our uber popular 1-on-1 online coaching program!
It’s kind of like having Yoda in your pocket (through your phone, not the Force…yet).
If this sounds like something that could help you, schedule a free call! You can talk to our team to see if we’re a good fit for each other! Click the image below to schedule now.
Be wary of anything called a superfood!
If you ever read anything about a “superfood,” let this act as a public service announcement.
Be skeptical. Marketers love this term because it’s not defined, regulated, or provable. Meaning it can be used at whim to sell whatever to desperate folks trying to lose weight with zero repercussions
The acai is a well hyped piece of fruit thanks to a serious marketing engine and lots of money at stake.
Like most berries, it has good antioxidants and nutrients. Good stuff.
And If you like the taste and want to treat yo self? Occasionally, hell yeah.
Should you eat one everyday for breakfast? Especially smothered in granola, drizzled with honey, and topped with more carbs/sugar?
There’s likely a better option if you’re not seeing success and losing weight. Here’s our advice on healthy eating for weight loss.
Don’t let headlines and hype distract you from what’s really going on. Tons of calories and sugar in the AM is a bad strategy if you’re trying to lose weight.
What do you think? Am I being too harsh on acai? Or does this berry deserve to have some of its hype squashed. Let me know in the comments.
Also, do you have any other “superfoods” you want us to take on in future “Liar, Liar Pants on Fire” posts?
-Steve, who is definitely NOT hiding from Brazilian acai marketing companies in my apartment closet, so don’t bother looking there.
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