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Acai is a fruit that comes from a species of palm found throughout Central and South America. The acai palm is of the genus Euterpe, and is of the species Euterpe oleracea. This palm traditionally was grown as a primary source of heart of palm, because it grows quickly. In recent years, however, the acai berry has become a hugely profitable nutritional supplement, and massive amounts are now grown exclusively for this purpose.
The fruit of the acai, generally referred to as an acai berry, is about the size of a standard grape, and looks quite similar. It grows in large clusters, with up to nearly a thousand berries per cluster. The berry has a single seed, which takes up the bulk of the fruit, with the remainder being pulp.
Traditionally, acai is eaten as a food by the indigenous Caboclo people of the Amazon region. Nearly half of their total food intake by weight is made up of acai, as it is prevalent, delicious, and very healthy. In Brazil it is used widely in food preparation, and may be added to smoothies, turned into soda or juice, or served as a dessert with tapioca. It is also used in acai liqueur, acai ice cream, and acai juice.
The acai berry has been widely promoted for its health food properties. Virtually every beneficial property imaginable has been attributed to the berry, and advertisements for it can be seen all around the internet, with claims ranging from the modest to the truly outlandish. Acai has been claimed to aid in sexual performance, weight loss, better sleep, lowering cholesterol, clearer skin, clearer digestion, and added energy. Even more extremely, acai has been stated by some to enlarge penis size and fully cure diabetes.
Despite a prevalence of claims about acai, there have been no widespread formal studies of its health benefits. Most health practitioners consider the majority of claims to be misleading, if not absolutely false. While it is likely that there are some benefits to acai, both in terms of fiber content and perhaps antioxidant levels, it is unlikely that it is the miracle drug some people claim it to be.
The majority of research that has been done on acai has focused on the antioxidant levels and activities of the berry. There are a number of different varieties of acai, and most of them have been tested against other known antioxidant containing foods. The purple variety, which is the variety most often claimed to help fight things in the body, did display a great deal of antioxidant behavior against peroxyl radicals. Other varieties were found to work well against other radicals, including superoxide and the hydroxyl radicals.
Flavor-wise, acai is generally appreciated by people who eat it. It is sweet like many other food berries, with a pleasing texture. It has an aftertaste vaguely reminiscent of chocolate, with a slight bitterness. This is likely one of the reasons it has become such a popular supplement, as many people find it more enjoyable than many other dietary aids.