Açaí berries are the fruit of the açaí palms (Euterpe oleracea and Euterpe precatoria), which are native to the Amazon River basin. Açaí berries have been shown to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities and to protect coronary arteries from damage following exposure to oxygen radicals. Açaí berries are a good dietary source of vitamin A and fiber, as well as some calcium and iron. Açaí berries also contain various anthocyanins and carotenoids, several lignans, beta-sitosterol, homoorientin, taxifolin, isovitexin, procyanidin oligmers, vanillic acid, p-hydroxybenzoic acid, syringic acid, ferulic acid, and protocatechuic acid, most of which have been reported to have anti-cancer properties. Suspected cancer-promoting substances in açaí berries include p-hydroxybenzoic acid and protocatechuic acid (which can also oppose cancer). Açaí berries contain high levels of fat compared to other berries, including oleic acid, palmitic acid, and linoleic acid.
Cancer-related effects of eating açaí berries
Açaí extracts have been found to greatly inhibit the proliferation human colon cancer cells and to inhibit proliferation and induce apoptosis in human leukemia cells in the laboratory. An anthocyanin-rich extract of açaí berries was found to exert antiproliferative and proapoptic effects against rat brain cancer cells, but the same extract had no impact on the growth of human estrogen receptor negative breast cancer cells. While açaí berries contain numerous compounds that could potentially contribute to protection against breast cancer, it is possible that the combination of fats, or unknown components, in the berries might not be favorable. More studies are needed to determine the effect of açaí berries on breast cancer.
Most açaí berry products marketed in the U.S. are produced in the Amazon region of Brazil. The berries themselves are highly perishable once harvested. Therefore, açaí berries normally are turned into a pulp (including the skins and flesh), freeze-dried, and made into a powder. This powder is exported to the U.S., where it is used to make açaí juice, açaí smoothies and açaí yoghurt. Dried berries and frozen açaí pulp also are available. In Latin America, fresh açaí juice is a source of Chagas' Disease, a potentially deadly disease that can result in cardiac, gastrointestinal, and neurological damage. Chagas' Disease is caused by a parasite, which is transmitted to açaí berries by triatomine, an insect. Contamination is believed to be caused by triatomine stools on the fruit or the insects themselves inadvertently crushed during processing. The conditions under which açaí berries are processed for export are much less likely to lead to contamination by the parasite than local Brazilian açaí juicing methods and there have been no reports in the U.S. of Chagas' Disease. However, I would view products made from açaí powder to be safer than any products marketed as "fresh" açaí foods.
Hearts of palm (palm hearts) are harvested from the same palms as açaí berries in the Amazon basin (other palm trees in Central and South America also are used). Hearts of palm are the undeveloped leaves of the palm (the bud). The palm hearts are collected and canned in the region before being exported. I have found no information concerning hearts of palm and breast cancer.
Açaí berry-drug interactions, especially cytochrome P450 (CYP)-mediated interactions, may cause an enhancement or reduction in the efficacy of prescription drugs. Açaí berry products should not be consumed during chemotherapy.
Although açaí berries are marketed as a weight loss aid, we found no studies concerning the potential impact of consumption of açaí berries on weight loss.
Note that while we are continually searching for new evidence concerning this food, there is not much interest in it among cancer researchers so few recent studies are available.