These purple bowls have captured superfood status, but what's in them may surprise you.
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Acai bowls are gorgeous, to be sure: purple and brimming with toppings like cubed mango, granola, and shredded coconut. You see people digging in with a spoon—and they're dubbed as a health food, but are they really?

No doubt the smoothie-in-a-bowl trend continues, and that includes acai bowls (and their cousin, dragonfruit bowls, but that's a discussion for a different day). "In simple terms, an acai bowl is a very thick smoothie with toppings that you eat with a spoon," says New Jersey-based chef Julie Harrington, RD, author of The Healing Soup Cookbook. "The trend started when the acai berry was categorized as a 'superfood,'" she says.

What's in an acai bowl?

Usually the base of the bowl is made from acai. These are deep purple berries that are native to tropical Central and South America that are packed with powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins, explains Harrington. Even if you were to come upon them in the wild, you wouldn't simply eat them. "To make acai berries edible, they're soaked to soften the tough outer skin and then mashed to form a dark purple paste," she explains.

The taste isn't the traditionally sweet-tart berry that you're probably used to. Some people describe the taste as earthy, and really, they kind of taste a bit like tea. Harrington calls it a cross between blackberries and unsweetened chocolate.

As much as acai has superfruit status, there are actually no studies that say acai on its own can improve your health, says the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. That doesn't mean that acai isn't worth eating—it's a good source of fiber and contains small amounts of calcium, potassium, and vitamin A—just that it's not a magic antidote for health problems or weight loss.

Because fresh acai would never make it to your grocery store, you can buy them as a frozen puree, powder or juice, says Harrington. And that's exactly what happens when you get an acai bowl: the base of the thick smoothie portion of the bowl is made by blending frozen acai puree, sometimes on its own or in combination with other fruits, she says. A fruit blend will likely taste sweeter, especially if acai is mixed with juice, like apple.

How to build a healthy acai bowl

You can pack a lot into a smoothie bowl, both in the base and on top. That might include various fruits (berries, sliced bananas, mango, kiwi), nuts and seeds (slivered almonds, chia, hemp), nut butters, chocolate pieces or cacao nibs, coconut flakes, granola and honey on top. "While the average acai bowl is packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fruits, protein, and healthy fats, it can also be very calorically dense if not made mindfully," says Harrington. Plus, if acai is blended with juice or a sweetened nut milk and then topped with sugary toppings (granola, chocolate pieces, sweetened coconut, honey), then it's easy to go overboard on sugar, too.

To get a sense of how many calories or how much sugar is in your bowl, consider that:

A plain frozen, unsweetened acai puree pack contains:

  • Calories: 70
  • Total fat: 5g
  • Sodium: 10mg
  • Carbohydrates: 4g
  • Fiber: 3g
  • Sugars: 0g
  • Protein: 1g

If you buy a blend—like Sambazon's acai and guarana, you may find that it's more palatable on its own, as it contains added sugar. That changes the nutrition info a bit and adds 30 calories and 12 grams of added sugar.

Those numbers are just for the base, total calories depends on what toppings you choose, and these really influence the final numbers. For reference, an acai bowl at Jamba Juice, which is an acai blend (acai, berries, soy milk, bananas) topped with fruit, granola, honey, and coconut, is 510 calories and contains 65g of sugar.

To keep calories and sugar in check, Harrington suggests considering the base of your bowl first. "If it's packed with acai and other fruit, maybe skip fruit to add on top and opt for healthy fats like chopped nuts or chia seeds," she says. Packaged granola can be another sugary addition, so if you're cutting back on the sweet stuff, leave the granola off the bowl or add a small sprinkle. You can also buy your own acai bowl at Trader Joe's, in the freezer section.

Bottom line

Acai bowls can be a great way to get antioxidant-packed fruit into your day. However, says Harrington, the trend has driven supercharged acai bowls that are blended with juice and other fruit, and then heavily topped with things like granola or honey, which can make it easy to go overboard on sugar. Read the ingredient list if you're ordering one and stay mindful of toppings to build a good-for-you bowl.