It’s the Amazon rain forest’s most successful product launch since the Brazil nut: the açai berry, fruit of the açai palm, and it has taken over the health food landscape, showing up in juices, supplements and, most notably, in bowls whose toppings range from fresh fruit to Oreos.
If you encountered an açai berry in the wild, you probably wouldn’t peg it for a blockbuster food. The fruit of the açai palm is blueberry colored and grape sized, but its taste is downright bitter.
The berry’s journey to your local açai-bowl purveyor starts with either the frozen pulp or rehydrated freeze-dried powder. Either must be combined with other ingredients to make the popular smooth, purple puree; common allies are banana, frozen strawberries or blueberries, soy, almond or coconut milk. These foods not only stretch the açai and improve its texture, they also add a critical punch of sweetness.
Açai’s lack of sweetness is both a nutritional selling point (it contains no sugar) and its Achilles heel — on its own it is unpalatable. Many of the frozen purees are presweetened. If they are not, vendors often add sugar, honey, maple syrup or agave nectar to their purees. Coupled with toppings of fruit, granola, sweetened coconut flakes — not to mention chocolate chips — açai bowls can easily contain more sugar than ice cream (19 grams for a half cup of Häagen Dazs chocolate).
The açai berry has been touted as a superfruit, brimming with antioxidants, but, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (the federal government’s lead agency for scientific research on alternative medicine) “there’s no definitive scientific evidence based on studies in people to support the use of açai for any health-related purpose. No independent studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals that substantiate claims that açai alone promotes rapid weight loss.”
On the plus side, however, the NCCIH allows that “a preliminary study suggested that eating açai fruit pulp might reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels in overweight people” and “a juice blend with açai as the main ingredient has been shown to have an antioxidant effect in people.”
Here are some of our favorite bowls on Long Island:
Vitality Bowls (96 E. Main St., Smithtown): Grab a seat at the counter or at a table alongside an aluminum wall, and prepare to learn about the cafe’s four main superfoods — açai, graviola, pitaya and acerola, which are used to create different bowl base blends. Franchisee Marlene Durai serves vegan-friendly bowls with no added sugars, GMOs, dairy or preservatives. Toppings include organic granola, bananas, blueberries, goji berries, cocoa nibs and honey. Açai bowls are served in two sizes: medium (20 ounces) and large (28 ounces). More info: 631-652-3262, vitalitybowls.com
Nooks & Kindles
Nooks & Kindles (960 Willis Ave., inside Basil and Prime, Albertson): Health conscious Nicholas Pace serves “mindfully made, all organic, no sugar added” açai at all three of his store-in-store cafes. For the shop’s signature N&K traditional bowl, his secret, proprietary açai recipe is served with hemp superfood granola, coconut flakes, fresh berries and banana, and is topped with raw, organic honey. Additional toppings, including almond butter, peanut butter, vegan chocolate chips, bee pollen and crushed almonds, also are available. Bowls are served in 12- or 16-ounce options. Nooks & Kindles’ other two Long Island locations are at Delicacies Deli in Roslyn and Grace’s Market in Greenvale. More info: nooksnkindles.com
Brekky (6 Sound Rd., Wading River): Build your own bowl or choose from the popular Brekky bowl (açai, granola, blueberries, bananas, strawberries, honey and coconut), the Yoga Bowl (açai, Greek yogurt, coconut flakes, granola, honey and your choice of three fruits), and a handful of other options. The açai at this quaint cafe is presweetened with organic cane sugar and is available in three sizes: small (12 ounces), medium (16 ounces) and large (32 ounces). Organic add-ons include peanut butter, chia seeds, almond butter and honey; also available: Nutella, crushed pistachios, cherries, kiwi and peaches. More info: 631-886-2227, brekkywr.com
Yolo Yogurt & Desserts
Yolo Yogurt & Desserts (1355 Old Northern Blvd., Roslyn): Yolo opened in June 2013, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it started serving açai bowls. According to co-owner Frank Briggs, açai, bananas, honey and coconut water are blended daily to create a base that’s organic, non-GMO, gluten free, dairy free and soy free. Customers can self-serve from a machine on a counter with more than 45 toppings and a case full of ice cream flavors. Get creative with sweet toppings such as rainbow cookies, chocolate-covered pretzels and sprinkles, as well as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, coconut flakes and peanut butter. You also can add frozen yogurt. Bowls are weighed for pricing. More info: 516-200-9191, yoloyogurtny.com
Organic Krush (108 Woodbury Rd., Woodbury): Set back in the Woodbury Junction shopping center, this health-centric eatery offers plenty of natural sunlight and six different açai bowls to choose from (or you can create your own). For the base, frozen packets of organic, unsweetened açai are blended with bananas, a dash of orange juice and a dash of coconut water.Co-owner Michelle Walrath says that, although the açai itself has no sugar, customers have the option to sweeten their bowls with toppings, including honey, chocolate and various fruits. Bowls are available in two sizes: 4 ounces and 8 ounces. There is another Organic Krush at 207 Main St., Amagansett. More info: organickrush.com
SoBol (412 N. Country Rd., St. James): The growing franchise, with more than 20 Long Island locations, blends frozen açai berries, strawberries, bananas and a splash of soy milk to create a base for its popular açai bowls. It is nestled between two layers of house-made granola, then topped with blueberries, bananas, strawberries, coconut flakes and honey. Additional toppings, such as mango, kiwi, pineapple, cookie butter, Nutella, almond butter, peanut butter, and cocoa nibs, range in price from 60 cents to $1.35. No substitutiions. Available in three sizes: kids (8 ounces), regular (16 ounces) and super (32 ounces). More info: mysobol.com
Bango Bowls (199 Main St., East Setauket): This chainlet, with full-time locations in East Setauket, Bay Shore, Huntington Station and Massapequa Park, and one seasonal in Salt Shack Seaside Grill (on Cedar Beach in Babylon, just off the Ocean Parkway), offers endless ways to customize an açai bowl. For the base, the açai, which comes frozen, unsweetened and organic, is blended with Bango Bowls' proprietary blend of açai, strawberries, banana, blueberries and a dash of soy milk. Its signature bowl includes the açai base, oats and honey granola, strawberries, bananas, blueberries, coconut and a drizzle of honey. Three sizes: kids (8 ounces), regular (16 ounces) and large (32 ounces). More info: bangobowls.com
Way of Life
Way of Life (565 Jericho Tpke., No. 103, Syosset): Like its sister locations, Food for Thought in Garden City and Port Nutrition in Port Washington, this cafe offers a variety of health-focused food options, including açai bowls. There are four on the menu, but the standout is the toasted almond delight, which comes with açai, banana, almond milk, hemp granola house-made almond butter, coconut shavings, strawberries and chia seeds. All açai is organic and sweetened, and can be married with plenty of fresh fruit add-ons such as blueberries, pineapple and mango. Available in a 16-ounce size. More info: 516-226-1764, wayoflifeny.com
Empowering Goods (750 N. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst): Açai didn’t make an appearance on this juice shop’s menu when its doors first opened in December 2016, but after customer demand, Asif Chowdhury, who owns the shop, made sure to add it. The açai here is organic and unsweetened, and is blended with natural sweeteners such as house-made almond or coconut milk, strawberries, blueberries and bananas. Available in a 24-ounce size. More info: 631-450-4817, empoweringgoods.com
Pantano's Gourmet (1150 Hempstead Tpke., Uniondale): In addition to its panini, salads, soups, breakfast foods and baked goods, Pantano’s serves an organic açai bowl that requires no blending and is scooped right from the tub. Most customers order directly from the menu — an açai bowl with granola, banana, blueberries, strawberries, coconut and honey, but a create-your-own option is available. Additional toppings, $1 each, include pineapple, pecans, peanut butter, chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts. Available in small (1 scoop) and large (2 scoops). There is another location in Hewlett. More info: pantanofoods.com/splash