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The promise of a relatively unknown fruit to boost the immune system and add a healthy component to the diet is driving several firms to prepare and market juices and sorbets that carry the unlikely name “açai.”

A palm fruit from the dense rain forests of Brazil, açai (a Portuguese word that is pronounced ‘ah-sigh-ee’), with its dark purple pigment, is loaded with antioxidants, amino acids, and essential omega fatty acids.

“If you have never tasted açai before, it’s like biting into a blueberry filled with soft, dark chocolate,” says Tom Heffernan, president of Caffe Classico Foods, the East Bay firm that has latched onto the unique Amazon rainforest fruit as the main ingredient in its new line of sorbets.

Heffernan’s firm is one of several marketing new products with açai, just one of the many companies promoting hundreds of new foodstuffs at the annual Fancy Food Show last week in San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

This promising fruit actually looks a lot like a blackish-purple grape. But the similarity ends there. It has a big seed and very little pulp. The fruit is found in the largest palm trees on earth, often reaching over 100 feet. Unlike cherries, which grow individually in trees, the açai berry grows in bunches, more like bananas.

Its biggest selling point, says Heffernan, “is that it contains a remarkable concentration of anthocyanins, the antioxidants in red wine believed to lower the chances of heart disease — although swig for swig, açai contains between 10 and 30 times more. What doesn’t it have? Just the bad things — zero cholesterol and 4 percent fat.”

He pointed out that açai is a hot item as well in Rio de Janeiro at present, as the juice bars are doing a rip-roaring trade.

“It’s an antioxidant powerhouse that blows even blueberries and pomegranates out of the water,” he added. “Fitness-conscious people love açai for its energy-sustaining properties. The first time I tried it was the açai smoothie at Jamba Juice. I think I was awake for four straight days.”

For a time, açai was added to smoothies and drinks. Now you can purchase the juice, and Heffernan’s firm uses it as a base for sorbet.

Belizza Açai sorbet comes in four flavors — plain, açai mango, açai banana, and pomegranate açai. It retails from $4.39 to $4.99 a pint. Trader Joe’s no longer carries the brand, so those interested in picking up a pint or two will have to travel to the closest Whole Foods store or drop in at Berkeley Bowl next time you’re in the East Bay.

More açai

Sambazon, a southern California firm, is taking the açai fruit one step further. It not only markets açai juice and smoothies in 10.5-ounce containers, but it also offers frozen scoop able açai, smoothie packs, and 100 percent açai powder. Some Safeway stores carry the juice and smoothies, while Golden Carrot and Optimum Foods in Napa are both Sambazon retailers.

An even newer firm, O.N.E., has just launched with a pair of products, Amazon Açai juice, and Natural Coconut Water, retailing for around $3 and $2 respectively. At present, they are available only at Andronico’s and some small health food stores and specialty markets.

Information about all three açai marketers can be found on the Internet.

Macadamias from Australia?

When we think of tasty cholesterol-free macadamia nuts, images of the Hawaiian islands come to mind. Yet Australia has now surpassed Hawaii in the harvest and sale of macadamia nuts.

Pamela and Martin Brook, proprietors of Brookfarm in the subtropical region of northern New South Wales, were at the recent food show acquainting retailers and macadamia nut lovers with their newest products — three types of Swiss-style muesli, including gluten-free toasted muesli, toasted macadamia muesli, and natural macadamia muesli. Just hitting the market are single-serving tubs ($2.50-$3), adding to the larger inventory of one pound bags ($8.99). Their muesli contains 17 different ingredients (grains, brans, fruits, and nuts) and is absolutely delicious when softened with apple juice, a dollop of yogurt and a couple of spoonfuls of honey.

In addition to selling their oven-roasted macadamias (flavored with just sea salt, or bush pepper spice or Kashmiri chile), the Brooks also market flavorful macadamia nut oil — which has a very high smoke point of 410 degrees, making it ideal for stir-frying. Offered in 8.5-ounce bottles, the oil comes in the plain macadamia nut flavor or infused with lemon myrtle or lime and chiles. It retails for around $11.

Locally, Brookfarm products can be found at Dean & DeLuca, Oakville Grocery and Ranch Market.


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