About… Acai berries

A little while ago, I had my attention drawn to acai berries, and it provoked several comments in the blog. As the blog scrolls down, I thought it might be useful to pull together what I wrote as an ‘about’ page – and this is it.

Acai berries are native to Brazil, and have dark purple skins. Like other dark skinned berries, these have strong anti-oxidant properties, and acai berries are reputed to contain the most anti-oxidant of any berry. Anti-oxidants are good in that they are believed to mop up free oxygen radicals in the body, which is believed to contribute towards ageing. There is wikipaedia entry about them here

However, the most interesting fact is that in laboratory studies at the University of Florida, the extract has been shown to have a an effect against cancer cells. Now it is a long way from a demonstration in a laboratory to a viable drug, and as far as I can tell, the results have not been repeated at any other laboratory. That isn’t to say that the effect isn’t genuine – lots of plant products exhibit pharmacological effects – Vincristine, part of the R-CHOP protocol, is synthesised from the Madagascan Periwinkle plant. Salycilic acid, found in some species of willow, is a powerful anti-inflammatory drug, which we know as aspirin, and if you ate enough apricot stone kernels, you would make yourself seriously ill with cyanide poisoning – they are pharmacologically active!

So there may be a potential benefit from eating acai berries. However, that brings two difficulties. If the berries are pharmacologically active, is it possible that they could interfere with the conventional treatments, either enhancing or reducing the effect? Certainly some other natural remedies, such as Echinacea and St John’s wort are not recommended with conventional treatment because studies have shown that there is an interference. However these studies don’t exist for acai berries.

The second concern is quality control. There are three main suppliers in the UK, each producing a range of acai berry products. One produces a juice, but there is a comment that the juice loses its anti-oxidant properties very quickly. Another produces a freeze dried extract (at £15/50 grams, or £135/lb!) for which they make generous claims, while yet another product is frozen pulp (at about £63 for 5Kg). The problem is that how do I know I am getting what I am ordering? What is the quality control? All I have are the claims of the companies, that are – as far as I can tell – unregulated. I could be buying cranberry pulp for all I know!

And on the subject of freshness and quality control, I was directed to this link which voices similar concerns to mine.

Now, at the risk of becoming an Acai berry bore (who said “too late”?) I attempted to find the source article. I have found the publication, a learned journal of “the American Chemical Society” called “The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry” and although I have the publication date, I cannot find the article (which I couldn’t read anyway as it is a subscription journal) Now I’m sure it is a worthy journal, but I would have been a bit more impressed if it had been published in say “The American Journal of Haematolgy” which reaches a wide cross section of haematologists on both sides of the Atlantic.

However of interest was the University of Florida News letter, which I have linked to here. Naturally they make no claims about any anti-cancer properties in humans (apart from any other reasons, to avoid falling foul of the Fderal Drug Agency – and also why they have not been pinged by Quackwatch) and because this is, as far as I can tell, a genuine piece of scientific research, but they actually go further and point out that the study, funded by UF sources, was not intended to show whether compounds found in acai berries could prevent leukemia in people. One of the reseacher is a Professor Talcott, and the newsletter quotes him:

“This was only a cell-culture model and we don’t want to give anyone false hope, Talcott said. We are encouraged by the findings, however. Compounds that show good activity against cancer cells in a model system are most likely to have beneficial effects in our bodies.

The newsletter also pointed out that the berries are perishable and have only been available outside Brazil for about 5 years, which is one reason why research is so scarce.

So to summarise…

The facts are: The freshly picked berries contain the highest levels of anti-oxidants of any berry and that extracts from the pulp have been shown in one laboratory to kill a percentage of unspecified leukaemia cells. These effects, as the article points out, are exhibited by other fruit extracts such as grape and guava. It also points out that eating a healthy diet that includes vegetables is beneficial!

So do I go and buy frozen Acai Berry pulp at £12/kilo, and take up loads of freezer space (and probably displaces that bottle of Plymouth Gin I am keeping nicely chilled against the day I can enjoy it again) or nip out to Sainsburys and buy a couple of pounds of red skinned grapes (or better still, a product made with them – which also contains anti-oxidants and lots of flavinoids) and a couple of guava? Hmm – tricky!

One other thought – Florida’s main source of income, apart from Mickey Mouse and tourism, is the citrus fruit industry, which has taken a bit of a battering recently. Now if the acai palm could be grown in Florida, what a useful bit of marketing that research might be… cynical? moi?

So for the moment I will watch the acai berry with interest, and there might come a time when I will try it – but that time is not now.