Yesterday, on my way home from an appointment, I paid my first-ever visit to Willner Chemists, the “oldest and largest nutritionally-oriented pharmacy in the U.S.” The more choices I have, the more I freeze up. From that perspective, impressive as it was, Willer was a landmine. I walked away grateful that I was at least able to settle on a brand of fish oil (and full disclosure: I was pretty sure about that one when I stepped in). What I did get out of seeing all those herbs and remedies was some insight into just how pervasive our enthusiasm over acai and pomegranate products has become. The shelves were overflowing with purple supplements, dried snacks, and powders. So of course I went home and did some research.
It turns out there’s a big unifying force to these two foods: They’re both rich in anthocyanins, a class of polyphenol antioxidants thought to be especially potent in helping to reduce inflammation and preventing cancer. Other studies have demonstrated that anthocyanins may have a role in strengthening collagen, protecting memory and the nervous system, fighting allergies, and–this was exciting for me, as someone who can no longer read a menu by candlelight–improve night vision.
Anthocyanins turn up in really dark red, blue, and purple fruits. In addition to acai and pomegranate, you’ll find them in raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, dark grapes, and cherries.
As with resveratrol (the antioxidant in red wine that is, in fact, closely connected to anthocyanins), all this research is so new–and involves such high doses–it’s tough to say what a few dried berries in your muffins will do, but they most certainly won’t hurt. That’s the logic I’m running with, anyway.
Since we’ve all been reading about foods like grapes and blueberries for years, I thought I’d focus the remainder of my reporting efforts on the newer contenders: Acai and pomegranate, and also goji and maqui (two items I’ve been passing now and again at the Whole Foods sample station).
Acai: This one’s gotten so popular it’s made it into everything from Absolut vodka to V-8. The good news here is that at least one recent study was actually able to link acai juice (as opposed to compounds derived from the stuff) with reduced inflammation. The thing to look out for, though, is diet claims. The market’s saturated with acai-based diet products, and none have been clinically proven to work. Interestingly–and I learned this from yesterday’s NYT–natural acai isn’t actually sweet (most commercial products have added sugar).
Goji: For centuries a popular Chinese medicinal ingredient, these are powerhouses for all kinds of good stuff. In addition to anthocyanins, goji berries are extremely high in vitamins C and E, iron, amino acids, beta carotene, magnesium, and selenium. They’re also a good source of germanium, a polysaccharide thought to help deliver oxygen to cells. There’s an interesting body of clinical research on germanium’s anti-cancer effects, but it’s all still pretty preliminary (and here especially, a few berries probably won’t get you too far).
Pomegranate: Most of the direct research here focuses on cardiovascular benefits, but there is some good work out of UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition that makes a solid case for the anti-inflammatory properties of actual pomegranate juice. It’s also a nice source of potassium, selenium, and vitamin K. (It also happens to–in my opinion–be delicious when made with squash!)
Maqui: I’m just starting to see this one. The berries are believed to have several times more anthocyanins than acai, which had previously ranked at the top of the anthocyanin-content heap (Both, incidentally, come from South America.) Unsurprisingly, maqui berries are being touted in similar kinds of diet and weight-loss products tas acai (here again, no studies to back that up yet). There isn’t nearly as much published research on them as for these other options, but I’m guessing it’s a matter of time here. Also to note: They’re a good source of vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and iron. Notably, and unlike goji and pomegranite, the berries themselves have a not-very-sweet, almost earthy taste.