At SmartyPants, we’re all about simplifying health. In this series, we’re breaking down those healthy foods and phrases that are suddenly everywhere, to give you the five-minute scoop on why they’re all the rage.

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Bell bottoms. Krimped hair. Bowls. What do these things have in common? They’re trends and, right now, we’re experiencing a definite trend in dishware. Plates are out. Bowls are in. Perhaps most notably acai bowls. The term “acai bowl” has more than 600,000 posts on Instagram and over 400,000 Google search results. But what is acai… “ah-kye”?? And is it really that awesome? Let’s find out.

WHAT IS IT?

Pronounced “ah-sigh-ee”, the berry is like a cross between a blueberry and a grape and it comes from palm trees found around the Amazon River basin of South America. The fruit is harvested and the pulp is immediately flash-frozen to retain the most nutritional value. The frozen pulp is what winds up in your bowl, usually blended with other “super” ingredients, such as greens, fruit juices, and nut milks.

LEARN: Click here to learn what nutrients you should pay attention to before your next run in the sun.

WHY IS IT GOOD FOR YOU?

Acai berries are low in sugar, with only 2 grams per 3.5 ounce serving. The fruit pulp is a good source of vitamin A, contains 2 grams of protein, and over 150% of the RDA for manganese, a nutrient that helps the body form connective tissue and bones, make hormones, and plays a role in blood sugar regulation. But acai’s claim to fame rests on its antioxidant content. According to acai evangelists, the fruit is packed with boatloads of these compounds which neutralize free radical molecules that can damage our DNA and lead to negative health conditions. (Read more about antioxidants and how you can get them into your diet every day.)

Amazonia, one of the world’s largest producers of frozen acai, states that the fruit is a “superfood,” with double the antioxidant concentration of blueberries, omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids, and, “over 50 essential nutrients unique to the Amazonia soil.” Sambazon, another global acai producer, states that acai is “probably the purest, most nutritious botanical on the planet.” Hm. Bold claims. But are they legit?

IS IT WORTH ALL THE HYPE?

Amazonia never defines what these 50 nutrients are, but we do know that fruits and vegetables take on constituents from the soil. Whether there are 50 nutrients unique to Amazonian soil? We couldn’t find any research on the subject. Acai does, however, contain a small amount of omega 3 fat in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which must be converted by our bodies into DHA and EPA, and the rate of conversion can be less than 5%. The rest of the fat in acai is mostly monounsaturated, omega 9 fat, which can help promote healthy arterial function.

READ: How eating seasonally will help you make the most of your diet.

As far as antioxidants? The known ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) value – a test which looks at in vitro antioxidant content – for acai juice blend is 1,767 per 3.5 ounces. Not super impressive considering the ORAC value for the same serving of dried prunes is almost eight times that number, and 200 times for ground cloves (but who’s eating three ounces of ground cloves?)

According to the USDA, ORAC values are not indicative of how a food actually affects a human body. But the research on the beneficial effects of consuming antioxidant-rich foods is widely documented, so ORAC values are probably best used as a means of comparison. Research on acai, specifically, is somewhat limited. NCBI, the National Center for Biotechnology Information database currently contains a little over 500 studies examining the potential benefits of the berry, including antibacterial properties,  enhanced immune function,  muscle recovery, and improved improve lipid profiles. But many of these studies have been conducted on animals, while those conducted on humans have had relatively small sample sizes and the results have not been duplicated.

CLICK: A runner’s guide to an all-natural recovery.

THE FINAL VERDICT

Is acai a “superfood”? The jury’s still out. Just because there’s not a heap of research behind something does not mean it’s not good for you. Go ahead and eat your bowls if you like them. But rather than chase down one magical food to solve all of life’s problems, we believe that the real “super” foods are those fresh and unprocessed foods that fit easily into your everyday life. If you eat a wide variety of real food, you’ll be getting plenty of antioxidants and you don’t even need a special bowl to eat them. They’re just as good on a plate!

Posted on April 27, 2017