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These bowls are trendy, and rightfully so — they are beautifully colored and often arrive with vibrant and artistic arrangements of fruit, nuts, seeds, and other aesthetically pleasing toppings. Colorful foods are typically associated with health, corresponding with the USDA's recommendation to "eat the rainbow." But what does an açai bowl truly offer us in terms of nutrition? Furthermore, are there potential downsides?
The açai berry is notorious for its superfood qualities. I personally hate using the word "superfood" when discussing the nutritional benefit of anything, simply because it's more of a marketing tool than an actual barometer of the food quality itself. However, the açai berry does contain significantly high levels of antioxidants, or compounds that neutralize potentially dangerous oxidative agents in the body. In fact, the açai berry had the highest antioxidant activity of any food reported to date against the peroxyl radical, which has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, and other illnesses. This characteristic has also been linked to cancer reduction in one 2012 study with mice, where the use of spray-dried açai pulp significantly slowed the growth of tumor cells.
Açai berries are also associated with weight loss. In a 2011 study, overweight adults who ingested 100 grams of of açai pulp twice a day for one month showed a reduction in glucose, insulin, and cholesterol levels, as well as small reductions in other indicators of metabolic syndrome. However, this was a preliminary study, and further research is necessary before any claim about the weight loss properties of açai berries can be substantiated. For this reason, the Federal Trade Commission has halted a fraudulent effort by Central Coast Nutraceuticals to sell an Açai Pure supplement marketed as a way to achieve "rapid and substantial weight loss."
Even if the weight loss claim is false (which is likely), açai berries still have the assumed benefits of being a natural food. However, most restaurants don't use true açai berries in their bowls — they use a juice blend, or a powdered version mixed with water or milk. Furthermore, there is much debate about the utility of smoothies and bowls when it comes to mitigating hunger and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially when it comes to sugar. Although the sugar is sourced from fruit, a typical açai bowl can contain 60 - 70 grams of sugar, which is equivalent to one bottle of Coca-Cola. It's no surprise then that these bowls are extremely high in carbohydrates, averaging somewhere between 80 - 100 grams of carbohydrates (up to 33% of the FDA recommended daily value).
While these bowls have around 11 grams of dietary fiber (or 43% of the FDA-recommended daily value), some experts argue that blending the fruit partially nullifies the insoluble fiber's ability to slow the body's absorption of sugar. This can contribute to feelings of hunger and overeating, which could be dangerous given the high calorie count of acai bowls. This one from Jamba Juice comes in at 490 calories, or 23% of the FDA daily-recommended value (but read my article on why this might be an overshoot for some people). This bowl from Juice Generation packs in 495 calories, and this one from Juice It Up has 510 calories.
Ways to Think About It:
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.