Açaí 101: Why It’s My Top Superfood + I’m In The Amazon Jungle!

Why is the world so obsessed with açaí bowls?

I can only speculate about why it became such a global phenomenon, but I’ll share my personal experience with the purple superfood goodness.

Three years ago, I chose to eat açaí for breakfast. And my life hasn’t been the same since. This is the most important blog post I’ve written. So grab a matcha latte and get cozy!

Best acai bowl in Hawaii

I know what you’re thinking. “This girl is crazy. How can a berry change someone’s life?”

Let me clarify: after falling in love with açaí bowls during a trip to Hawaii, I started Breakfast Criminals, my blog about mindful mornings and superfood breakfasts (with its heart and soul in açaí). Since then, the hobby has grown from a  business, and I’ve been traveling from New York to LA, DC, Nicaragua, Russia and Brazil to lead açaí workshops.

I live and breathe all things açaí. Purple is my religion.

But how and why did this obsession start? And how does a New York City girl end up in the Amazon jungle, where this superfood berry is considered a blessing?

My love affair with açaí is a story about a broken heart that was healed with self-love and mindful nourishment. I share more about it in my most personal YouTube video so far: 

I was already hooked on starting my day with energizing purple smoothie bowls, but the real awakening happened when I went to Brazil for the first time and tried açaí in its purest form.

A local friend took me to a small açaí bowl shop in Rio de Janeiro, where açaí is served as a thick, semi-frozen puree blended with nothing but a little bit of water with granola and tapioca on the side.

I remember that moment like it was yesterday: it felt like the whole world stopped, and I had to close my eyes to savor it fully. I mean, doesn’t it look heavenly? 

The flavor was rich, the texture was creamy, and the whole experience felt like I was eating an magical nectar of Gods. My mouth and lips were stained purple – the easiest way to recognize high quality açaí. It made me feel grounded and nourished. That’s when I made a wish to come back to Brazil and go into the Amazon jungle to see how açaí grows.

Fast forward 6 months later, and I’m on a boat with Tambor Acai, riding through the Amazon jungle on our way to an organic açaí farm. I was selected to be the first blogger to go to the world’s açaí capital to learn about its history, meet the farmers, and see every step of its production (dreams do come true!)

Here’s what I found out. I hope to paint a clear picture about what açaí berry is, how it tastes, how you can eat it, and choosing wild grown, sustainably harvested açaí makes a huge difference.

WHAT IS ACAI BERRY?

Açaí berry is a nutrient-rich dark purple berry that grows in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. It’s considered one of the most powerful and nutritious superfoods on the planet, and has been used for centuries for its legendary health properties.

How acai berry grows | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

Fresh acai berry | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

HOW DOES ACAI BERRY GROW?

Açaí berry grows on açaí palm trees that can be up to eighty feet tall. Approximately 70% of all açaí berries from  the Brazilian Amazon jungle along the rivers, the rest is grown on açaí plantations. A ripe açaí berry is the size of a small blueberry.

What makes açaí different is that most of the berry is not flesh, but the seed. The thin layer of flesh and skin is what is pureed and eaten, and the seeds can be used to make jewelry.

Acai berry rainforest in Brazil | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

Acai berry rainforest in Brazil | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

WHAT DOES ACAI BERRY TASTE LIKE?

The taste of raw açaí berry is tangy and earthy. Like rich dark chocolate combined with cherry or wine, but without the tartness or sweetness, and with a fuller body. If you’re ever had organic red palm oil, you may find it similar to açaí in its potent, earthy flavor. Acai also tastes very similar to aronia,  a traditional Russian berry.  

To me, açaí is not only about the taste, but about the way it makes me feel. When it’s high quality and pure, to me it’s the most nourishing, grounding, medicinal and satisfying food on Earth.

Acai berry harvest in Brazil | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF ACAI?

According to David Wolfe, “because the equatorial tropics are one of the harshest UV ray-intense zones on our planet, in order to protect itself from the sun, the açaí berry produces high amounts of its own protector “sunscreen” – the substances we know as “antioxidants.” It has approximately 6 times more  antioxidants than blueberries, and 18 times than grapes.

The Brazilian superfood berry that boasts in fiber (excellent for digestion), iron,  vitamins A, B1, B2 and B3, essential fatty acids (Omega-3, Omega-6), as well as Omega-9 and monosaturated oleic acid, which is a beautifying oil. Açaí is low in sugar and has a low glycemic level. It supports healthy brain function, boosts energy, immunity and helps promote a healthy cardiovascular system. Açaí is also called the beauty berry and the weight loss berry (because it’s rich in fiber). 

The truth is that açaí contributes to the overall health of the body, but a lot of açaí products such as supplements have tiny amount of the berry, and are full of sugars and fillers.

WHAT IS AN ACAI BOWL?

Açaí bowl is simply a thick açaí smoothie served in a bowl. To make an açaí bowl, frozen açaí puree is blended with other fruit like banana and served with coconut, granola, strawberries and honey. It’s a nutrient dense meal that’s favored by servers because of the lasting energy it gives you. Find out more about how to make an acai bowl + get 14 acai bowl recipes. This is the way açaí is usually eaten on the beaches of Rio, Hawaii and anywhere in the West. But it’s completely different from what I experienced in the jungle…

WHAT’S THE TRADITIONAL WAY TO EAT ACAI?

The beauty of açaí is that it’s a complete whole food, not just a superfood you can take as a supplement.

The açaí farmers laughed when I showed them my breakfast açaí bowls with almond butter, banana and all the toppings. In Para, the açaí home state, açaí is a staple savory, not sweet food.

A family usually purees the fresh berries in the morning, and then eat it with lunch and dinner, served as a thick juice/puree at room temperature.

The way acai is served at an acai farmer's house | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

The way acai is served at an acai farmer’s house | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

We had lunch at one of the organic açaí harvester’s house, and this was the setup: rice, bean stew, two types of meat, and a huge pot of unsweetened, pure açaí with a ladel. Every guest got a plate for the food, and a separate bowl for the açaí.

Once you pour the açaí into your bowl, you can also top it with tapioca puffs (gluten-free puffs made from local tapioca flour, they taste similar to plain rice crisps), crispy manioc flour and sugar (since it’s served completely unsweetened).

The traditional way Acai Is eaten In Belem, North Of Brazil

The traditional way Acai Is eaten In Belem, North Of Brazil

Açaí is eaten either with the meal, or after it.  In restaurants in the North of Brazil, açaí is served in a very similar way: it’s brought out in bottles as a side to your order of meat or seafood. You then pour it into a bowl and garnish with tapioca and/or manioc, and optional sugar.  This experience opened a whole new world for me, and a new (savory!) taste for açaí.

HOW IS ACAI HARVESTED?

A harvester climbs the açaí palm and breaks off a branch that has up to 25KG of berries. Then, wearing gloves, he slides his hand down each branch, taking off the berries into a woven wooden basket. Açaí is harvested twice a year. The height of açaí harvest season stretches over a three-month period each year.

Breakfast Criminals Fresh Acai Harvest

Holding fresh acai. This could be the happiest moment in my life!

HOW IS ACAI PRODUCED?

After being collected by harvesters, the açaí baskets are loaded into small boats and brought into the port. There, they’re transferred into plastic crates and loaded into trucks. The trucks take açaí to the factory, where the berries are washed, sanitized, soaked and put through a machine that separates the seed from the flesh. From there, the açaí puree is packaged, flash-frozen to maintain chemical structure, and shipped worldwide.

The largest producer of açaí in Brazil, the factory that I got to visit, processes 15,000 tons (15 million kilos) of açaí every year.

Acai truck in the Amazon jungle | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

WHERE IS ACAI EXPORTED?

While most of the açaí is shipped to different regions of Brazil (?), the popularity of açaí around the world and the global demand have skyrocketed over the last few years. The biggest importers of açaí are USA, Australia, Chile and Germany.

WHERE CAN I BUY ACAI?

You can buy açaí in two forms: frozen puree sold in ready to blend packs, or powder. While both are great, to get the real experience, I highly recommend going for the frozen packs. You can buy pure unsweetened açaí puree packs or açaí lightly sweetened with guarana syrup. My favorite açaí brand is Tambor Acai, which you can buy online.

HOW TO EAT ACAI

I’m sharing a recipe for a sample Western açaí bowl, as well as a more traditional take on eating açaí. As you get used to the açaí taste, try removing other ingredients and trying it pure and simple.

Authentic Brazil-Inspired Acai Bowl

Ingredients to Blend:

  • 2 Tambor Acai unsweetened packs
  • ½ cup thick yogurt (I use coconut) or ⅓ cup coconut cream
  • ½ fresh or frozen banana (optional)
  • ¼ cup water or coconut water to get the blender going

Toppings: raw cacao nibs, berries.

Traditional acai bowl recipe

Classic Western Acai Bowl

Ingredients to Blend:

  • 1-2 frozen açaí puree packs
  • 1 fresh or frozen banana
  • 1/2 cup frozen strawberries
  • 1/2 cup coconut water or almond milk
  • 1 tbsp. Almond butter

Directions: Blend all ingredients until thick, smooth consistency. Serve in a bowl with your favorite toppings.

Topping suggestions:

  1. Fresh fruit: strawberries, blueberries, banana, mango
  2. Condiments: honey, granola
  3. Superfoods & Dried Fruit: cacao nibs, goji berries, mulberries, coconut
  4. Nuts: roasted almonds, brazil nuts

Traditional acai bowl recipe

HOW TO PRONOUNCE ACAI

IS ACAI SUSTAINABLE?

It’s important let support small farmers who grow açaí sustainably. The farms along the river are usually family owned and run enterprises. Lives of those communities fully depend on the açaí demand.

Here’s what Forestry & Environmental expert Leonora Pepper shares after spending 9 months in the north of Brazil and getting to the roots of açaí ecology:

“In the space of a few decades, açaí has gone from having no market to speak of to becoming Brazil’s main forest food product by value. Traditionally it’s harvested from minimally managed forestland… In many ways, açaí represents a possibility for agriculture of the future. At its best, cultivation is clean and ecologically sound. It’s anchored in regional culture and drives afforestation rather than deforestation.

Small-scale river farmers are not the only people investing in the açaí economy. As açaí production has become so lucrative, large landowners have taken note. Some erstwhile ranchers are converting cattle pasture to açaí cultivation. This is a small shift away from an extremely detrimental land use system in the eastern Amazon.

Is there a difference in quality between floodplain- and plantation-grown açaí? Without a doubt. The continued viability of small-scale traditional production therefore rests largely upon recognizing and valuing a higher quality product.

As the popularity of açaí persists and grows, consumers in the US and other countries should realize that not all açaí is equal. As we do, will there be an emergence of specialty and craft açaí products, as we’ve seen with coffee and chocolate?”

Acai berry harvest in Brazil | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

Acai berry harvest in Brazil | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

BONUS: THE LEGEND OF ACAI BERRY

From açaíberryeducation.com

Brazilian folklore tells the tale of an Incan Princess named Iaca whose father was the tribal chief of her people. As the years passed and she grew to adulthood a serious problem had emerge; the tribe was outgrowing its food resources!

After a particularly dry season the chief and his advisors came to realize that the starvation of his people was eminent unless drastic action was taken.

Having just witnessed the birth of his only granddaughter the decision the chief would make was even more heart wrenching: In order for his people to survive he would need to order the execution of all newborn babies.

His daughter Iaca pleaded with her father to spare the newborn’s life but the chief knew granting her wish would create dissention among the ranks and destroy his people. He ordered his most loyal bodyguard to carry out the execution.

Iaca was devastated at the loss of her child and after two days of mourning fell asleep. That night she heard a haunting cry emerging from the nearby woods; the cry of her daughter!

She quickly awoke and ran deep into the forest following the eerily foreboding sounds echoing through the night. Her journey led her to a large palm tree towering into the night filled with succulent purple berries.

The bounty of food before her would save her people and her daughter had they only known the sacred location of the tree.

So distraught was Iaca that she collapsed and died. Days later the chiefs scouts, in search of his missing daughter, found Iaca’s body at the base of the life giving tree.

The distraught chief had found the food to save his people but at the price of two people he loved very much. To honor the sacrifice he ordered the tree to be named after his daughter “Açaí” (which is Iaca spelled backwards) and to be known as “the fruit that cries.”

Fresh picked acai berries | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

Fresh picked acai berries | Photo: Breakfast Criminals

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