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The Largely Unknown Berry that is Ranked #1 in Antioxidant Value of Any Known Food

Açaí berries, dark-blue fruits from the Açaí palm tree, have been gaining attention as a functional "superfood" and antioxidant powerhouse since they hit the market in 2000.

acai berries

Açaí berries (pronounced "ah-sigh-EE"), found to have the highest antioxidant value of any food, are being promoted for their potential energy-boosting, health-enhancing effects.

The grape-like berries, native to tropical Central and South America, have long been a staple food, mixed with tapioca or sugar, of Brazilian Amazon peasants, but the tropical-tasting fruits (with chocolate-flavored undertones) are now being studied worldwide for their potential health benefits.

The Highest Antioxidant Values of Any Food

Two articles in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry examined the antioxidant activity of freeze-dried açai fruit pulp/skin powder, which researchers named "OptiAcai."

The berries have a high level of anthocyanins, compounds that give the berries (as well as grapes and other dark-colored berries) their color and high antioxidant levels.

The studies found that OptiAcai had the highest antioxidant levels of any food, as measured by the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC), the scale used to measure antioxidant activity.

Antioxidants are so important because they protect your cells from free radicals. Similar to rust on a car, free radicals can cause oxidation in your body that may lead to disease and aging. The American Dietetic Association points out that antioxidants can help to not only prevent oxidation but also to support your immune system and decrease your risk of:

  • Infection

  • Heart disease

  • Cancer

However, not all açai products hold this potential antioxidant benefit.

"What mystifies me is that the açai products we tested in the commercial marketplace had a fraction of the antioxidant activity reported in our paper for OptiAcai ... in our paper we report that the highest Total ORAC we found was 155 for any freeze-dried sample, compared to the 1026.9 for OptiAcai. USDA and Brunswick Laboratories confirmed the unusually high ORAC," said lead researcher Alex Schauss.


Be wary of açai products on the market. Researchers found much lower antioxidant levels in them, possibly because of differences in drying and shipping methods of the highly perishable berries.

Manufacturing Process May Affect Antioxidant Value

When the researchers tested açai products on the market, none came even close to the antioxidant values found in OptiAcai. Because açai berries are highly perishable, the researchers believe the lower values may have to do with how the fruit is dried and shipped.

"We believe there are many reasons for the lower ORAC values of various açai's that have been on the market for some time. First, freeze-drying is superior to spray drying or air drying in retaining phytochemicals and nutrients, but more expensive," Schauss said.

"We believe that other suppliers have not considered the issue of enzymatic degradation of the fruit. We systematically studied this issue years ago to determine when to process the fruit into a powder. This was all done in Brazil.

"Much of what is being shipped out of Brazil comes to the USA or Europe in container-sized frozen blocks. This does not prevent the continuous degradation of the polyphenolics. Hence, this would explain why we obtained such low Total ORAC units for frozen açai samples," he said.

Açai Kills Cancer Cells in Lab

Adding to açai berries' allure, another study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that extracts of the fruit caused up to 86 percent of leukemia cells tested in a lab to self-destruct.

"Açai berries are already considered one of the richest fruit sources of antioxidants," said Stephen Talcott, an assistant professor with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "This study was an important step toward learning what people may gain from using beverages, dietary supplements or other products made with the berries."

high antioxidant foods

Looking for other antioxidant-rich foods? Blueberries, blackberries, pecans and kidney beans are all excellent choices.

While the findings do not prove that compounds in açai berries may prevent leukemia in people, the researchers were optimistic.

"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."

Other Very Top Antioxidant Foods

While açai continues to be studied, and until you can be sure that the berries you're buying contain beneficial amounts of antioxidants, you can fortify your diet with these other top antioxidant foods, based on a 2004 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

  • Small red beans (dried)
  • Wild blueberries
  • Red Kidney beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Blueberries (cultivated)
  • Cranberries
  • Artichokes (cooked)
  • Blackberries
  • Prunes
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Red Delicious apples
  • Granny Smith apples
  • Pecans
  • Sweet cherries
  • Black plums
  • Russet potatoes (cooked)
  • Black beans (dried)
  • Plums
  • Gala apples

Recommended Reading

Six Disease-Fighting Super Antioxidants You are Likely Not Getting Enough Of

The Remarkable Antioxidant Power of Cranberries -- and Three No-Cost Cranberry Recipes


Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2006 Nov 1;54(22):8604-8610.

Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2006 Nov 1;54(22):8598-8603. November 8, 2006

Natural Products Industry Insider

University of Florida News

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