Acerola (Malpighia emarginata) is a tropical bushy shrub or small tree. It is native to South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The evergreen plant produces fruits that are similar to cherries and turn deep red when ripe. These so-called acerola cherries are known to be one of the richest natural sources of ascorbic acid in the world. Fresh acerola juice contains 13 times more vitamin C than an equal portion of orange juice. This extremely high vitamin C content is only comparable to camu camu, a berry native to the Amazon rainforest.
Traditional medicine used the berries as astringent and as treatment for liver disorders, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, coughs, and colds. In 1950, the plant was introduced to Brazil by researchers who brought the first seeds from Puerto Rico. Since then, the popularity of the tropical fruit has increased. It is now widely exported throughout the world and is also being grown as far north as Texas and in certain parts of the Indian subcontinent.
Currently, Brazil is the largest world producer of the red fruits. They are mainly used to make jams, juices, syrups, and sauces. Acerola cherries can also be eaten raw but are highly perishable. That is why they are often available in powdered form or as supplements. Acerola fruit extract is a potent source of antioxidants and also frequently used in skin care products.
Growing throughout the Caribbean, the shrub is also known as Barbados cherry or West Indian cherry. However, the plant is not related to cherries but belongs to the family Malpighiaceae. The Malpighiaceae family consist of vines, shrubs, or trees and is also called Barbados cherry family.
After some taxonomic confusion, Malpighia emarginata DC. has been accepted as the present scientific name of the plant. Its synonyms Malpighia glabra L. or Malpighia punicifolia are from the past but still used sometimes. Some sources say that M. glabra, also known as Escobillo, is the wild species whereas M. emarginata is the cultivated species.
What does the plant look like?
The evergreen shrub grows usually about 2 to 3 meters tall but can sometimes reach up to 6 meters. It is bushy with spreading branches and small dark green leaves. The young leaves bear white hairs that can irritate the skin. The mature leaves are hairless and glossy. Small, 5-petaled flowers bloom year-round in warmer climates. The flowers are pale to deep pink and grow in clusters of three to five. They are followed by cherry-like drupes. These acerola cherries ripe from green to a shiny, bright red colour. They contain yellow-orange, juicy pulp with several small seeds. The tart to sweet-tart fruits deteriorate rapidly once removed from the tree. They start to ferment within three to five days after harvest, and their nutritional value decreases as they ripen. This makes handling of the fruit and its storage difficult.
Where the name comes from?
The common name ‘acerola’ is thought to come from Spanish colonists. Apparently, they named the shrub after the European azarole (Crataegus azarolus), a Mediterranean hawthorn, due to the similarity of their tart fruits. Bearing a cherry-like fruit and growing in the Caribbean, the plant is also called Barbados or West Indian cherry.
How or what it is used for?
The fruit is edible and widely consumed in its native area. However, it decomposes very fast and tastes quite acidic. Therefore, it is most used to make juices and pulps, vitamin C concentrate, and supplements. Supplements are available in a range of forms, including capsules, powders, and chewables.
Acerola is used to prevent vitamin C deficiency. It is also used as antioxidant nutrient as well as for cold and flu prevention. In skin care products, the tropical fruit is used for its anti-aging and astringent effects.
Other uses with limited scientific support include treatment of diarrhea, liver problems or depression.
Medicinal Properties of Acerola
Research supports acerola fruits and juice as a high source of vitamin C and a significant source of antioxidants. Further, results from test tube and animal models showed some biofunctional properties. These include skin whitening effect, anti-aging and multidrug resistant reversal activity. Also, hepatoprotective and certain antibacterial effects have been described for fruit juice. Still, more research is needed.
Vitamin C plays a vital role in:
- Supporting the immune function
- Protecting against free radicals (antioxidant)
- Wound healing
- Collagen formation
- Development / maintenance of cartilage, bones, teeth and gums
The health benefits of acerola are likely linked to its high vitamin C content. Being one of the most important water-soluble vitamins, it is essential for the biosynthesis of collagen, carnitine, and neurotransmitters. It also plays a key role in the synthesis and maintenance of tissues including the formation of bones, teeth and muscles. Humans cannot synthesize this vitamin because they lack the enzyme that is essential for the last step of the biosynthesis.
A 2011 study compared the absorption and excretion of synthetic ascorbic acid and acerola juice in healthy participants. The results indicated that some component of the juice favorably affected the absorption and excretion of ascorbic acid in humans. In general, vitamin C is readily absorbed when the intake is up to 100 mg per day. At elevated levels of intake, such as 500 mg per day, the efficiency of absorption swiftly declines.
The recommended dietary allowances (RDA) of ascorbic acid for adults, 19 years and older, are 75 mg per day for women and 90 mg per day for men. This amount could be covered by consuming three acerola fruits per day. However, further research on the absorption and bioavailability of the vitamin is needed.
Acerola is regarded as possibly safe for most adults when taken by mouth in doses under 2000 mg of vitamin C per day. As with a vitamin C supplement, you may experience gastrointestinal distress as side effects if you take too much. Prolonged, massive dosage may predispose to formation of kidney stones.
There is some concern that large amounts of vitamin C might affect chemotherapy drugs. Large amounts can also theoretically interact with fluphenazine (Prolixin), warfarin (Coumadin), and estrogens. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should exercise caution with the tropical fruits as there is not enough data available.
It is always recommended to discuss with your doctor before starting any new health product, especially if you are on a medication.
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The acerola cherry is one of the richest sources of ascorbic acid, known as vitamin C.. It contains an amount in the range of 1500 to 4500 mg per 100 g, which is around 50 to 100 times than that of oranges or lemons. The vitamin C content is highest in green and lowest in fully ripened fruits. It also varies with the season and climate.
Acerola’s health benefits are mostly due to its richness in vitamin C, an essential coenzyme that is required for normal metabolic function. Whereas many animals can synthesize it from glucose, humans must obtain it from dietary sources. Since it is a water-soluble vitamin that is not stored in the body, it needs to be taken in daily. This vitamin is known to strengthen the immune system and build collagen cells. It also supports the respiratory system. Deficiencies can result in scurvy, a potentially fatal disease.
Some research results indicated that certain components of acerola juice facilitate the absorption of vitamin C in humans. But it is not definite yet if the naturally derived form is superior in its clinical effectiveness than the synthetic one.Including the fruit into one’s diet might be still beneficial as it also contains several other vitamins, minerals and phytoconstituents. Acerola contains pro-vitamin A at about the same level as in carrots. It also contains vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and iron in lesser amounts.
Studies confirmed that the fruit is also rich in antioxidants. These include vitamin C, carotenoids (primarily beta-carotene), and polyphenols such as anthocyanins and bioflavonoids. Antioxidants are known to help prevent free radical damage and certain diseases related to oxidative stress. The combination of vitamin C and the mentioned phytochemicals in the fruit might help protect the body from cancers, degenerative diseases, inflammation, and infections. Moreover, a concentrated polyphenol extract from acerola showed skin-lightening effects on UV-induced pigmentation. This makes it also a major ingredient in facial skincare products to help against cellular aging.