acai bowl

Açai bowls: superfood or junk food?

Surely you’ve heard of açai. It’s old news now — açai’s untouchable reverence as a superfood. So obvious that it’s almost cliche. Maybe you already knew that native Amazonian populations have used açai for centuries to cure digestive ailments like constipation and nausea? Maybe you know that Amazonian tribes regularly enjoy Instagram-worthy açai bowls teeming with granola and banana? (Not really.) Though perhaps some eat açai like the rest of us, traditionally the açai fruit is harvested from its mother palm and prepared as a warm and savory food with manioc or tapioca and maybe shrimp.

In the name of research, I came to the Brazilian Amazon in search of a fresh, warm and savory version of açai.

I scoured Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas state and home to over 2 million people, for any non-frozen or desserty açai. The closest I got to it’s traditional form was a sweet cold bowl topped with unsweetened tapioca. This was a minor win when contrasted with the bubble-gum sweet bowls I found all over Rio. There, bowls are uniformly topped with ripe bananas and sugary granola and then garnished with more liquid sugar. The most grueling of my research was conducted on Copacobana Beach and at a gem of a hole-in-the-wall called Cultivar. After many an açai, I’ve concluded that açai in Brazil is not any fresher or more nutritious than açai I can get from a food truck in Seattle’s suburbs*.

At least Brazilians don’t pretend that dark purple smoothie bowls are any different than ice cream. Naturally low-glycemic, açai berries in their pure form truly deserve to be superfood queens, but açai bowls deserve to be dethroned. Almost any palatable bowl has a lot of sugar added in there. I say “a lot” of sugar to the tune of 50 grams, or the recommended maximum daily limit. Açai bowls, a “health food” that maxes out the sugar quota in one go.

Let’s shift and talk blueberries. They’re also (though not quite as) high in antioxidants and also (though not as) purplely. However, spin blueberries into a sorbet and not many of us would justify it as a serving of fruit, let alone an IV drip for superheroes.

Try and imagine a Brazilian traveling to Maine in search of the indigenous magical blueberry. It’s not blueberry season, so he settles for a slice of antioxidant-rich blueberry pie. When offered a la mode, he forgoes the strange offer for a vanilla ice cream. This is his nutritious, nearly-medicinal breakfast blueberry pie!

Don’t get me wrong, I love blueberry pie. I love açai bowls.* And while I was deluded for years, I can’t pretend I’m making the healthy choice by ordering an açai bowl for breakfast. Unfortunately, most smoothie bowls don’t give us that right.

*My favorite açai bowl state-side is in Kirkland, WA at a little shop called Healthy Bonez.

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