Has the açaí trend hit your local supermarket yet? Five years ago, açaí was a niche item relegated to the hippie organic food aisle or the health food co-op. Now the fruit — or at least the flavor — is gracing everything from mainstream brands of cereal bars to frozen fruit pops.
Even talking about the trend is trendy: In the new indie movie "The Kids Are All Right", a friend talking about his açaí and hemp milk smoothie is the last straw in Annette Benning’s character’s ability to listen to eco-babble over dinner.
The craze is based on the berry’s high concentration of antioxidants, amino acids and essential fatty acids. It’s often referred to as a “superfood” and regularly makes appearances on top 10 lists of foods to better your health.
I’ve pretty much ignored the hype because frankly, I think that eating a balanced diet with tons of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is a better health strategy than seeking out one particular food. Also, it didn’t help that I had no idea how to pronounce the word. For the record, it’s three syllables — “ah-sigh-ee.”
But I recently spent a few weeks in the Amazon (and yes, the carbon footprint guilt is enormous) and got to see firsthand where açaí actually comes from and have my first taste of the pudding-like purple pulp mixed with sugar and crunchy tapioca.
Açaí berries grow high in the tops of palm trees in large groupings of branches. And in the indigenous village that I visited, there was only one way up to the top: using your hands and feet. I watched as a villager looped a palm leaf around his feet to help grip the tree trunk then quickly shimmy up the at least 30-foot-tall palm. He climbed with a knife in his mouth, which he then used to cut off the branch that was teeming with the small purple berries, and then slid back down the trunk. (The only thing more nerve-wracking than watching that was then watching a 7-year-old follow suit!)
There’s absolutely no better way to appreciate your food than to see where it actually grows and how it is produced. I didn’t know what açaí berries even looked like, much less that they are only found at the top of towering palm trees. And while I know that those particular açaí berries might not be the same ones on my supermarket shelves in Virginia, it was so great to see how it could generate income for the community without putting any additional pressure on the environment.
As was the case when I rode by hundreds of banana plantations in Costa Rica, seeing this process opened my eyes to all that really goes into getting food to my plate. I couldn’t help but think what seeing something like that would have done for me as a kid, when my mom regularly scraped my untouched vegetables into the trash can. Maybe I wouldn’t have LIKED eating the vegetables any more, but I doubt I would have let them go to waste the same way.
So load the kids up in the Prius this back-to-school season, and take a trip to the local apple orchard or pumpkin farm for an education about their food, their health, and the environment. (And if you don’t have kids, take yourself — there’s nothing wrong with a refresher course now and again.) After all, it’s a lot easier to care about the environment when you are reminded of all the things it provides.
—Text by Margaret Southern, Cool Green Science Blog