You might recognize it from smoothies and posts on social media, but do you know how an açaí berry looks like and how it is eaten in the North of Brazil, where it is native from?
Almost 95% of all açaí consumed in the world comes from the Pará state, in the Brazilian North Region. And the largest part of it is consumed locally since açaí is part of the daily diet and is historically known as a source of subsistence. Together with manioc flour, shrimp, fried fish, and jerky beef, an açaí bowl can easily surpass 500 calories — about a quarter of what an average adult needs per day.
At first sight, the açaí berries may look like blueberries or dark grapes, but they are much more like lumps — hard and impossible to chew. After harvesting, the fruit must be crushed immediately, usually within 24 hours, to preserve its flavor, color, and smell. Its consumption also needs to be straight away, until 72 hours.
For that reason, it is virtually impossible to try traditional açaí outside the producer states. But after being whipped to form a puree, frozen and industrialized, açaí pulp can travel to all corners of the world.
The fruit became popular in the early 1990s, when Brazilians ate it to regain energy, especially in beach localities. In the next decade, the Western world discovered its health benefits and soon açaí found its way into people’s diets.
The fruit has a real arsenal of nutrients, such as vitamins (A, E, D, K, B1, B2, C), minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and phosphorus), amino acids, antioxidants, and essential oils.
In other words, it can help to improve cognitive function and memory, promoting brain health. It can also lower cholesterol levels, combat the formation of fat plaques in the arteries, and reduce the risk of heart diseases, besides having anticarcinogenic properties.
It is not uncommon for foods of such importance to obtain prominence in local mythology. Like corn to the Aztecs, açaí has its own supernatural story.
There is a legend of an Indigenous tribe that saw its population overgrow its food capacity. In a dramatic measure to avoid hunger, the chief condemned all newborns to death.
His daughter, Iaca, was pregnant, and her baby was not spared. Devastated, she turned to the god Tupa, asking him to end the tribe’s suffering. One night, she heard a child crying and followed the sound into the forest.
She was found dead the next morning, at the foot of a palm tree. Iaca’s open eyes were staring at the top of the tree, straight into small fruits that swayed from its branches.
From that day on, the tribe began to feed itself with the purple juice made from the palm tree’s berries and abolished the sacrifice policy. The name of the fruit is a palindrome: “açaí” is Iaca in reverse.
Data from the Municipal Agricultural Production of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) show that in 2019 the national production of açaí was almost 1.4 million tons.
In 2018, Brazil exported 2 tons of açaí puree. In 2020, 74 tons were exported, which was equivalent to US$ 331.5 thousand. In addition to Pará, Brazilian states of Amazonas, Roraima, and Rondônia also produce the berry. There are reports of smaller-scale production in other countries in the Amazon rainforest, such as Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and the Guyanas.
In 2020, the largest importer of açaí puree was the United States (89.8%), followed by Portugal (9.9%) and Panama (0.2%).