Acerola Features High Antioxidant Levels

Oranges, strawberries and peppers don't come close to the anitoxidant punch a little fruit called acerola does.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D.

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Oranges, strawberries and peppers are among the richest common sources of vitamin C in the modern diet, but they pack nowhere the punch of a diminutive little fruit called acerola (Malphighia glabra), also known as the Barbados cherry and the wild crape myrtle. This tiny tropical cherrylike fruit -- less than an inch in diameter -- is packed with antioxidants and can consist of as much as 4.5 percent pure vitamin C.

That’s two orders of magnitude more concentrated than an orange. Native to the West Indies, South America, Central America and parts of Texas, and cultivated in India, the acerola bush sports small, oval-shaped leaves and can grow to a height of 5 meters. Naturally rich in fructose, the sweet, tart and juicy acerola is used in jams, ices, gelatins, sweets and liquors.

In Brazil, where acerola juice is as common as orange juice is in the U.S., acerola has a reputation as a natural remedy. It’s used as an anti-inflammatory to fight fever and dysentery, and as a nutritive aid for patients with anemia, diabetes, tuberculosis and cardiovascular disease.

This reputation for healing may reflect its richness in vitamin C. In fact, for that reason, many westerners often confuse acerola with rose hips, the fruit of the rose bush that is also naturally rich in vitamin C, though not quite at the potency of acerola. But like many recently popular tropical fruits, the nutritive reputation of acerola does not end with vitamin C.

The immature green acerola is actually richer in vitamin C than the bright red mature fruit, but the change in color indicates something highly significant: the appearance of some powerful antioxidant polyphenols. The maturation is caused by an increase in the flavonoids cyaniding-3-rhamnoside (C3R) and pelargonidin-3-rhamnoside (P3R). These novel polyphenols were isolated by researchers in Japan and reported in the May in Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry. The findings are consistent with previous studies delving into the antioxidant potential of a variety of native Brazilian foods.

In the 2005 article, "Antioxidant activity of dietary fruits, vegetables, and commercial frozen fruit pulps," published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers reported on the antioxidant potential of foods commonly consumed in the native Brazilian diet, particularly those rich in anthocyanins, the polyphenol that gained reputation as the red wine factor in the "French Paradox." These foods included açai, mulberry, acerola, red lettuce, red cabbage, gala apples, black bean and a fruit called jambolao. In this study, the anthocyanin content also predicted the highest in vitro antioxidant activity.

Among the most potent fruit pulps tested were, açai, mulberry and acerola. Acerola scored highest in vitamin C and total phenolics, though that was attributed in part to its high vitamin C content. Much research is needed to see how this translates into protection against disease in humans, but it seems likely acerola’s reputation for health benefits rests on both its richness in chemicals with antioxidant potential and its nutrient density with respect to vitamin C.

The fresh acerola fruit loses taste and nutrition rapidly when harvested -- a fact that makes it unattractive as a produce item. Its strength as a nutritive ingredient, therefore, lies as an ingredient -- an ingredient with the ability to deliver high levels of natural vitamin C to foods and beverages, along with a sweet, tart flavor and minimal calories. Manufacturers can take marketing advantage of this wide range of benefits. With further research, its other compounds, such as its novel polyphenols, may prove an even more attractive addition to many foods and drinks.

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