Berry that helps keep Brazil's bodies beautiful - 06 Jan 2007View article
Some people call it the youthberry, others call it Botox in a bottle. Either way, it's important you learn how to pronounce aai (ah-sigh-eee), because it looks like it's going to be big this year.
Claims of its rejuvenating and detoxifying properties come thick and fast: it's packed with cholesterol-lowering Omega 3, 6 and 9, and it's 10 times richer than red wine in anthocyanins, the substances thought to be responsible for France's low rate of heart disease.
Amid some rather frenzied claims from Copacabana-based surfers about how açai improves both your sex life and your surfboard technique, one sober scientific report from the University of Florida reports that, in test-tube experiments, açai triggered a self-destruct mechanism in up to 86 per cent of leukaemia cells.
And a British organisation, Heart Research UK, confirms that the antioxidants in açai "mop up" the unstable molecules known as "free radicals". These chaps, caused by pollutants such as cigarette smoke, can not only be harmful, but speed up the ageing process.
So far so good, but what does this superfruit taste like?
"Eaten on its own, açai is actually rather an acquired taste," says Charlotte Delal, who is Brazilian-born and Bedales-educated. This glamorous young shoe-designer-cum-supermodel is fronting (in microscopic bikini) the marketing push for Sparky, one of three açai juice brands newly-launched in Britain.
She's not wrong about the taste. Drunk on its own, açai has a fruity, blackberry feel, but without the expected full-steam-ahead sweetness. Instead, there is a very-nearly-but-not-quite bitter chocolate aftertaste.
That is the reason why juice companies such as Innocent market açai that has been pepped up with other fruits, such as mango, pomegranate and blueberry.
Helping to make the fruit politically palatable is the fact that, unlike many natural resources removed from the Amazon, its harvesting is environmentally sustainable. In fact, the new-found global demand for açai means that the people of Para province can now make more money out of harvesting the berries than they can out of palm hearts.
The significance of this is that removing the heart of a palm involves cutting the whole tree down, whereas removing the fruit merely requires cutting off a branch, on which giant clusters, or "panicles" of the berries, or "drupes" are growing (up to 900 at a time).
So important is the fruit to Belem, the main port town of Para, that there are now 60 factories processing the berries around the clock (an açai is 90 per cent stone and 10 per cent fruit).
Credit for exporting the berry from rural northern Brazil to the urban south goes to a jiu-jitsu trainer by the name of Carlos Gracie, the great-grandson of Scottish immigrants (from Dumfries), who brought the açai-consuming habit with him when he moved from Belem to set up a training academy in Rio early last century.
Indeed, the walls of many Rio juice bars are lined with signed photos of martial arts and bodybuilding champions, testifying to the contribution made to their training regime by the fruit.
For the past decade or so, açai has been the fashionable beachfront drink in Rio, usually taken with a dash of guarana, another herbal stimulant from the rainforest. Now, the little superberry has made the long journey across the Atlantic.
"I'm sure açai is going to take off in Britain," says Khaled Yafi, whose Berry Company is selling a mixture of açai and raspberry juice in Waitrose and Sainsbury's.
"I think 2007 will be the year that açai berries explode."