Growing up in the Midwest, an ice cream sundae would be the typical summer afternoon or evening treat.
For us, ice cream has now been replaced with the acai bowl which is vegan and usually gluten free, but are their health benefits over-hyped?
The truth is they can be downright bad for your health if you’re not careful. It’s not that acai is a scam (it really is a superfood). It’s that the juice from it may not be as nutritious as you think. Plus they often add a bunch of nasty stuff.
Antioxidant content debunked
Why is the acai berry good for you – or more accurately said – why do people think it’s healthy? Because of the antioxidants, of course. Though if you press a person for further details on that, they probably can’t tell you how acai vs. blueberries compare, or to any other food for that matter.
You can look at a nutrition facts label to see how much vitamin C and A is in a food, but there are thousands (several thousand) of other compounds identified so far in fruits and vegetables which demonstrate antioxidant activity in vitro. You won’t find any mention of those on the back of the box or bottle of juice you’re drinking.
So how does acai measure up versus other superfoods?
The best way to answer this question is with ORAC testing, which looks at in vitro antioxidant content. It involves a very elaborate series of tests and doesn’t come cheap – often costing several thousand dollars (or more) per item tested. The end result is an assigned ORAC value which represents the total antioxidant power.
Previously, the USDA published ORAC values for around 300 founds and beverages but they removed them in 2012, citing that in vitro (laboratory) is not a substitution for in vivo (in the human body). That may be true but it’s impossible to test inside a human in real time and watch how antioxidants react throughout the body against oxidative free radicals. So ORAC continues to be the next best thing according to many, many scientists, since thorough in vivo testing is virtually impossible to do.
Within the USDA’s previously published test results, they published two ORAC values for acai products.
|NDB No.||Description||Parameter||Mean||N||SEM||Min||Max||QC||Reference No.|
|99577||Acai, fruit pulp/skin, powder||H-ORAC||99700||1||C||25|
|99578||Juice, acai blends||H-ORAC||1767||9||58||1555||2145||B||26|
|Reference No. 25: Antioxidant capacity and other bioactivities of the freeze-dried Amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart. (acai). J. Agric. Food Chem., 2006, 54:8604-8610. (1)
Reference No. 26: Comparison of antioxidant potency of commonly consumed polyphenol-rich beverages in the United States. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2008, 56:1415-1422. (2)
So we don’t cause your eyes to glaze over, we’ll skip explaining each of those numbers. Instead, we will tell you what you need to know in one sentence…
While freeze-dried acai powder is extremely high in antioxidants, but the juice blends are not.
The juice only has 1.7% of the antioxidant content as the powder!
This is a problem because almost all acai bowls you buy are made using the juice, not the much more expensive freeze-dried acai berry powder. Which brands of acai juice were tested? The USDA doesn’t list them but we got our hands on the actual report to find out for you and here they are.
Those are the brands they used and what was reported was the average of the three tests. Being that they didn’t sub-divide them out in their reporting, one would guess they probably tested out as being similar values.
Sambazon is one of the best selling acai brands in the US. Based out of San Clemente, they supply juice, pulp, and mixes for many acai bowl retailers nationwide.
Bolthouse Farms isn’t best known for acai juice, but you can bet they still sell a lot. Especially since the Campbell Soup Company purchased Bolthouse for $1.55 billion back in 2012, which only increased their distribution.
Owned by Sunny Delight, the Bossa Nova brand was discontinued in 2013.
Though you shouldn’t interpret this report as acai bowls being unhealthy if they’re made using Sambazon or Bolthouse. Sure, there are probably things they could do to increase the antioxidant activity, such as having it less diluted with water/other juices and perhaps better processing and preservation methods (like darker colored bottles to decrease light).
Ultimately all brands, whether these or others, are likely to have similar ORAC values.
Why do they have 98% less antioxidants?
Most antioxidants – especially those which are water soluble – are quite sensitive to light, temperature, and oxygen. These things deteriorate the antioxidant content and do so quite rapidly.
This is especially true with bottled juice. Sure, the pasteurization kills any bad bacteria, but it also destroys some good antioxidants including vitamin C. That’s why your Minute Maid orange juice doesn’t have its original vitamin C from the oranges. Instead, they had to add in ascorbic acid after pasteurization. To add insult to injury, about 80% of ascorbic acid is manufactured in China (3).
Think cold-pressed is the perfect fix? Think again. We definitely prefer it, but there is still a great deal of antioxidants lost.
Fresh produce loses nutrients fast. It’s why many frozen vegetables and fruits are healthier than fresh. Take cauliflower as an example. When fresh it contains 55 mg of anthocyanins per kilogram. After just 3 days in the refrigerator, no anthocyanin content is detected! It would lose it even faster if it was not refrigerated, since higher temps = faster deterioration.
Unless raw acai berries are frozen immediately after harvest or freeze-dried like spices and herbs, they will lose a great deal of their antioxidants in a relatively short period of time.
We don’t know of anyone who imports fresh acai from South America but even if they did, the lengthy time of transit to the US would have a disastrous effect on the total antioxidant content.
More sugar than two cans of Coke
How much sugar is in an acai bowl? A lot and worst of all, much of it is added sugar. The sugar content of pure unsweetened acai fruit puree is close to 0 grams per 100 gram serving (about 3.5 ounces worth). When you buy a bowl, the sweetness you are tasting has been added in (and we all know they are usually quite sweet).
Since it’s a Brazilian fruit that until recently, has been rarely consumed in America, the USDA doesn’t yet include acai in their nutrient database. But take a look at the no sugar added version of Sambazon smoothie packs, which consist of frozen acai puree and nothing else. As you see there is almost no sugar.
Ever had a Jamba Juice acai bowl? The 16 ounce is really tiny, at least according to pigs like us. If you order their next size up – the 24 ounce – it’s more comparable to your average sized acai bowl – and the nutritional information for it is alarming. Not exactly what you would call a diet food for losing weight!
|24 Ounce Jamba Juice Açaí Primo Bowl Nutrition Facts|
|% Daily Value*||% Daily Value|
|Total Fat 15g||23%||Vitamin A||15%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||19%||Vitamin C||710%|
|Trans Fat 0g||0%||Calcium||15%|
|Total Carbs. 148g||49%|
|*Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet|
That data is from Jamba Juice’s website and as you see, it contains a staggering 96 grams of sugar! That’s why your kids are bouncing off the walls after eating one.
It’s almost as bad as drinking 2.5 cans of Coke, which have 39 grams of sugar each. And at least with the Coke, 3 cans = 417 calories instead of 740!
To be fair though, a large amount of the sugar in the bowl is from fructose, and that combined with the fiber means it has a much lower glycemic impact than Coca Cola.
Unlike many of their smoothies, the Jamba Juice acai bowl is vegan if you are OK with honey (many vegans are not). Here’s what they say is in their bowl: Açaí Juice, Soymilk, Frozen Bananas, Fresh Bananas, Ice, Frozen Strawberries, Frozen Blueberries, Organic Granola, Fresh Blueberries, Honey, Coconut
The ingredients list is not a true food label, because they don’t tell you what’s inside the soymilk and granola (their ingredients and whether they have added sugar). Whatever the case, those things combined with the honey and natural fructose in the berries and bananas are leaving you with a glycemic index overdose!
But before we rip them a new one, we should stop. Their acai bowls are good for you when it comes to a few things. There are the benefits of high fiber and no cholesterol since it’s entirely plant-based. At 23% of daily value, it’s not fattening considering the size. Low sodium. Vitamin C is a big plus, but we don’t know how much of that (if any) is from ascorbic acid. They also don’t provide details on the source of their acai juice.
Casting aside the sugar (and carbs from it), if you made this into a meal it would be healthy, though it’s too calorie-rich for a snack in its current form.
Kreation Juice vs. Paradise Bowls
Since most places that sell these bowls are independent mom ‘n pops or very small chains, it’s impossible to offer you reviews which are applicable to every geographic location with the exception of Jamba Juice.
What they sell in your neck of the woods will be different than ours. That said, let’s take a look at a couple in Los Angeles (our area). Even though these may not be in your hood, you can take our advice about them and apply it at your local shop to order a healthier bowl.
With around a dozen locations in LA, they’re a popular place for cold-pressed juice. They apparently like to boast about their celebrity clientele too, given the pics of Justin Bieber, Kendall Jenner, Hailey Baldwin, and others plastered on the wall inside their El Segundo shop. Not all of their locations sell acai bowls, but that one does (we really wish their El Porto/North Manhattan Beach shop would).
All organic. Not just “when available” but all the time, everything is organic.
Less sweet. In California, restaurants only have to publish nutrition facts and an ingredients list when they have 20 or more locations. Kreation has 13 and unfortunately, they haven’t yet taken the initiative to voluntarily disclose this info at their stores. That being said, our taste buds tell us their acai bowls are definitely less sweet than just about anywhere else in town, as long as you order it without honey. Though it’s still sweet, so it must still have a fair amount of sugar in some form.
Gluten free. Very few places use certified gluten free granola. Kreation does.
Almond butter instead of PB. We’re not haters. Peanut butter has a high ORAC value – about double that of acai juice – and peanuts are one of the richest dietary sources of resveratrol, containing almost the same amount as red wine. However we know a lot of people have allergies to them. Most bowl shops use PB because it’s cheaper. Kreation uses almond butter.
Open ’til 7 pm. All of their locations are 7 am to 7 pm. If it were our choice, 8 pm would be preferred, but they still beat almost all other bowl shops which close at 5 or 6 pm. That extra hour is golden, because it allows us to transform it into a naughty yet healthy dinner, more on that below.
Not cheap. $10.95 is a couple bucks higher than buying a comparable sized bowl at pretty much every other shop we’ve been too in LA/OC/San Diego.
Size. Ten bucks would be cool with us if only the bowl were a bit bigger and more filling. It has very little granola – like maybe a couple teaspoons. It’s more along the lines of a smoothie you eat with a spoon.
How to make it healthier
Skip the added honey. Most vegans will do so anyway, since honey may or may not be vegan according to your definition. We’re vegan but not fans for a different reason… because the idea of eating bee vomit is nasty.
Make it into a meal by adding your own protein powder. Even with the whole antioxidant degradation thing, there are acai bowl health benefits. Plenty in fact. But they’re not good for weight loss (or avoiding weight gain) if you’re eating them in addition to lunch or dinner. Too many calories for that.
Instead, try adding a scoop or two of protein powder, mix it up with your spoon, and bam… you have a dessert that’s also a meal, so you won’t feel guilty about it. It’s a favorite for us on weekdays, post-workout. We swing by to get a chocolate AmazeBowl and then add a scoop or two of the very delicious Warrior Blend RAW plant-based chocolate protein powder (but be warned, the Warrior Blend chocolate flavor is addictive).
Started by a couple former MLB players, Justin Segal and Alex Graham, Paradise Bowls currently has three locations; Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Newport Beach. The staff of Superfoodly regularly hit up the MB location.
Big serving size. If you get the large, it’s massive. Great value. For $9 you get something that seems about twice as filling as the Kreation bowl.
No skimping on ingredients. You saw the photo at the top and that’s their bowl. Loads of raw cacao nibs and heaps of blueberries. A honking huge scoop or two of granola means you will be left filled up.
All plant-based. With the exception of honey (which you can leave off) everything in their store is plant-based. Their chocolate almond milk beats the soy milk found in that acai bowl from Jamba Juice any day.
Add-on options. We prefer the Chocolate Tide as-is, minus the PB. We’re too cheap for the add-ons. But if you aren’t cheap, there are plenty of nutritious options like hemp seeds, bee pollen, goji berries, almond slivers, and more.
Little things we notice in kitchen. At the Manhattan Beach location, the kitchen/prep area is fully visible. Employees are always good with putting on gloves. One day we noticed the girl in back refilling the water on a machine and she was pouring in bottled water, not tap. We appreciate those things.
Really, really sweet. Even without the honey, it tastes as sweet as a Starbucks Frappuccino. As discussed above, acai berries naturally have almost no sugar, so they have some sort of sweetener – and a lot of it – in the juice base they’re using. If they had a low/no added sugar version, or better yet a monk fruit option, we would gladly pay extra for that and in turn, be able to indulge in it much more often. We would even settle for mutagenic stevia over sugar!
Not organic. They don’t advertise anything as being organic. That being said, some of the brands they use for certain toppings are organic and name brand at that, but no word on the frozen and fresh fruits so we have to assume they are conventional.
How to make it healthier
Skip the honey, obviously.
Skip the shredded coconut, which is sweetened.
Medium or large? Split with friend. It’s not that they’re too big, in fact they’re just the right size. The problem is the sugar. We don’t even want to know how many grams of sugar are in their large acai bowl! We wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more than the Jamba Juice bowl. At least if you split it with someone, it’s only half as sinful.
Except for the acai base, avoid the tropical fruits. You can’t control how much sugar is in their acai mix, but you can control which fruits get mixed in with it. Stick with the blueberries, strawberries, and especially goji berries (goji has the least sugar and is actually one of the highest protein fruits). Not only do these three have lower Glycemic Index ratings than their tropical fruits, but also much higher antioxidant content. Contrast them to the ORAC values for mango, guava, banana, and pitaya, which are all quite disappointing.
How to make a healthy acai bowl
We love both, but neither is perfect. It all depends on which factors are most important to you. Despite our criticisms, we are big fans of both Kreation and Paradise Bowls.
Technically, the best option may be to make your own. We wish that weren’t the case, but we say this for 3 reasons.
1. Use your own acai powder
We don’t know of a single shop in LA/OC/San Diego that uses the freeze dried powder. Though you can easily buy some yourself and make a bowl at home by tossing a few scoops into a blender with ice and other ingredients of your choosing. Remember the ORAC value of the powder is 102,700 versus 1,767 for the acai juice. The powder has over 50x more antioxidants than the juice.
2. Sweeten with monk fruit
As you’ve probably concluded by now, the sugar content is really the only thing that makes them potentially unhealthy.
Are acai bowls fattening?
Not really. Most of their calories and carbs are coming from the high sugar content (added sugar and/or fructose from the other fruits). The only things fattening are the nuts, coconut milk/shreds, and almond/peanut butter, but you can always control which of those, if any, go in to your bowl.
At the end of the day it’s really the sugar that is hard to control when you buy a bowl. But if making it at home, you can use the zero calorie sweetener monk fruit which is a perfect solution for weight loss, diabetics, and others who simply don’t want a bad sugar crash afterward.
3. Have complete control over ingredients
Usually the type of granola in these is far from ideal, because it’s very crunchy and that means it’s probably loaded with unhealthy acrylamide. Even for the bowl shops which sell vegan protein powder for an up-charge, it’s often something wretched like soy protein isolate or plain brown rice protein, rather than our favorite chocolate Warrior Blend. When you make it yourself, you can control these things. All you need is a half-way decent blender and the acai powder.