All food is not created equal—a fact we've been aware of since adolescence when we begged to dine only on hot dogs and mac 'n' cheese but were forced to eat Brussels sprouts and broccoli instead. Today, though, we're often told that some foods rank much higher than others we once assumed were plenty healthy. The word "superfood" is relatively new and perhaps more a marketing term than anything else, but the label has been applied to fruits, vegetables, grains, and even fish that are seen as superior to others. So what exactly makes a superfood so super? While there is no legal definition of a superfood (meaning it can be added to the label of any product), most agree that superfoods are extra beneficial because of their nutrient profile. Blueberries, salmon, spinach, and pomegranates often fall into this category, but another that usually appears near the top of this food list is a little-known fruit called the açai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) berry.
The green açai berries will later ripen into a dark purple, at which time they will be harvested for their nourishing benefits.
The açai is a species of palm that is native to tropical Central and South America. In some traditional populations in the Brazilian Amazon, the açai palm is believed to be the most important plant species, as it makes up a large percentage of the people's total food intake and is economically valuable. The small purple berry of the palm looks much like a grape, but it tastes like a blend of berries and chocolate. Researchers have analyzed the berry's nutritional content, and their findings have bumped it up the superfood rankings. Even renowned dermatologist Nicholas Perricone, M.D., named the açai berry the top superfood, not only because of the benefits it offers the body internally but also for what it can do to improve the skin.
Açai berries are chock-full of free-radical fighting compounds. They contain 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes and up to 30 times the anthocyanins of red wine. The fruit also contains resveratrol, an antioxidant that's found in red wine grapes. One study published in 2006 found that the "antioxidants in açai are able to enter human cells in a fully functional form and to perform an oxygen quenching function at very low doses." Quenching oxygen is important in skincare services aimed at preventing aging, as the antioxidants keep oxidants from harming connective tissue. At the Comfort & Joy Wellness Spa (Fairfax, VA), guests can try the 100% Pure Volcanic Renewal Treatment ($175, 90 minutes). First, the body is dry brushed to increase circulation and slough away dead cells. Next, skin is scrubbed with a blend of açai and goji berries, sugar, volcanic ash, and charcoal to detoxify, cleanse, and boost the body's natural anti-aging powers. "Our guests are looking for ways to minimize the effects of day-to-day exposure to environmental stress and toxins on their skin," says spa owner Julie Smalfelt. "The açai berry's antioxidants can help reduce free radicals' abilities to cause wrinkles and premature aging." There is also some evidence that anthocyanins provide resiliency to the connective tissue of the skin by repairing protein bonds.
Beyond antioxidants, the açai fruit is also loaded with vitamin C, key amino acids, minerals, and many other nutrients that are essential for skin health. All of these components work together to promote optimal skin function and healthy cells. "Açai perfectly complements part of our philosophy that whatever is placed on the body is absorbed into our clients' skin," explains Kasia Siwulec of Spa Shawnee and Salon at The Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort (Shawnee Village, PA). The spa offers a Revitalizing Açai Facial ($95, 50 minutes), during which an açai gel is applied to the skin. "Our açai facial helps with dark circles and puffiness and removes impurities," says Siwulec, who is also a fan of the organic and all-around healthy aspects for the body and environment of using natural ingredients like açai.
Another benefit of açai berries is their high essential fatty acid content. The berry and its seeds contain an exceptional amount of fats, including oleic, palmitic, and linoleic acids. These fatty acids are important in helping regenerate cell growth, and they keep skin supple, soft, and moisturized. The menu at The Spa at MINT (Washington, D.C.) includes the Açai Energy Bowl Facial ($100, 50 minutes), a "treatment that helps clients with both dry skin and acne because açai provides a balance of nourishing properties," says wellness director Tanya Colucci. The service starts with an exfoliating step using organic granola. Next, a mask made from açai berries, bananas, and soy milk is smoothed over the face. The treatment was actually inspired by a popular menu item at the fitness center's café, and the spa's health-minded guests love it because of all the nutrients it packs in for their skin.
Açai berries, found in the Brazilian Amazon, are gaining widespread appeal as an effective anti-aging ingredient.
It's the exotic aspect of açai treatments that appeals to adventurous spa-goers. The ingredient is still fairly unheard of to some consumers, so it draws in clients who are looking for something new and interesting. The tropical nature of the Amazonian berries also works well in destination and day spas for an exotic option. "We want to be different from other nail spas," says Julie Nguyen, owner of Aura Beauty Spa (Irvine, CA). "We want to offer higher end products and treatments that won't burn a hole in our clients' wallets." To that end, she has added the Amazonian Guavaberry Manicure ($35, 60 minutes) and the Amazonian Guavaberry Pedicure ($55, 60 minutes) to the spa's menu. Both services begin with a coconut bath, then a passionfruit-guavaberry scrub, followed by a guavaberry revitalizing mask, and an application of açai antioxidant cream to finish. Nguyen adds that her guests love the aroma of the treatments.
Because açai services center on a food ingredient, offering food elements during or after the treatment is a fun way to ensure your guests remember and recommend the experience. At the Dolce Divino Salon and Spa (Corpus Christi, TX), for example, guests who have the Amazonian Berry Manicure ($30, 20 minutes) or Pedicure ($55, 50 minutes) are served a cup of açai tea to sip. After the treatment at MINT, guests are given a shot of an açai berry smoothie. After all, a treatment is truly successful when it manages to nourish both inside and out. —Megan O'Neill
Reap the rewards of the rainforest and give your clients' skin a nourishing nudge with these açai-infused products.
100% Pure Organic Açai Berry Anti-Aging Eye Cream: This vegetarian, toxin-free moisturizer for the eye area combats free radicals with a healthy dose of organic, antioxidant-rich botanicals like açai, blackberry, blueberry, pomegranate, and white tea. (510) 836-6500; www.100percentpure.com.
Bella Luccè Açai Antioxidant Body Crème: Nourish and moisturize your clients from the neck down with this potent blend of antioxidants and botanical oils, including açai berry, macadamia nut, and certified organic cupuaçu butter. (800) 485-3079; www.bellalucce.com.
glōPure Hydration: This gel moisturizer is loaded with skin-softening ingredients that help keep your clients' complexions hydrated. Açai fruit extract supports the skin's barrier function, squalene moisturizes and plumps, and vitamin C and pink guava fight aging. (800) 649-0510; www.glotherapeutics.com.
Rare2B Detox Facial Mask: Without damaging the skin's protective barrier layer, this detoxifying mask helps purge the skin of impurities. The açai fights inflammation while babassu palm soothes dry skin and Amazonian white clay draws out toxins. (310) 839-2696; www.rarenatural.com.
Selona Açai Berry & Milk Bath Treatment: A silky blend of protein-rich milk and free-radical-fighting açai berry, this bath is perfect for manicure and pedicure soaks. (888) 735-6625; www.selonabeauty.com.
Sonya Dakar Açai Clarifying Wash: Featuring a blend of organic açai, andiroba, and copaiba from the Brazilian rainforest, this refreshing wash penetrates deep into the pores to help normalize oil production and control breakouts. It also contains salicylic and lactic acid to exfoliate the skin. (877) 72-SONYA; www.sonyadakar.com.
Surya Brasil Amazonia Preciosa Hand and Body Lotion: Loaded with certified organic botanicals, including açai and Brazil nut, this lotion is also free of artificial fragrances, dyes, phthalates, and parabens. (877) 99-SURYA; www.suryacosmetics.com.
TerraNova Lime Blossom & Jasmine Rejuvenating Super Fruits Body Lotion: Organic açai and goji berries, along with Tahitian noni, help improve skin's tone and texture, while the clean, crisp scent invigorates the senses. (800) 966-3457; www.terranovabody.com.—M.O.