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Acai Has Become Popular, but Some Experts Question Claims About the Berries

Berries
Goji berries (not shown) are no longer the wonder fruit of the moment, having been superceded by acai berries. (iStockphoto)

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By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How bad can the economy be if people are buying acai?

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Surely you've heard of acai, even if you're not sure how to pronounce the name. (It's ah-sigh-EE.) The little purple berries have been touted for more healthful qualities than you'd think a simple berry could bear. Who'd have believed that this modest product of Brazil's Amazon rain forest could do everything from speed weight loss to correct sexual dysfunction -- while bolstering your immune system, too?

A lot of people.

According to Spins, a market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry, Americans spent more than $108 million on acai products in the 52 weeks ending Feb. 21, up from just over $62 million the year before.

That's a lot of berries. But are buyers getting their money's worth? That depends on what they expect.

Acai products have been spotlighted as super foods on Oprah Winfrey's and Rachael Ray's high-profile TV shows -- though not, Winfrey and Ray are quick to point out, endorsed by those celebrities, despite the fact that many ads for acai products bear their images. Mehmet Oz, in an "Oprah" appearance, listed acai berries at the top of his list of 10 most healthful foods before backing off and saying they belong on that list, but perhaps not on the top. Anybody with a Facebook or e-mail account has probably seen ads for this supposed miracle berry.

The fragile, highly perishable acai berries don't keep or travel well, so they're not available whole in these parts. But you can purchase powdered or frozen acai pulp to add to smoothies, bottled beverages featuring acai juice (usually combined with other fruit or berry juices) and dozens of dietary supplements purporting to contain key acai compounds. You can spend less than $10 on a bottle of 60 (supposedly) acai-containing supplement pills or about $40 on a 25-ounce bottle of MonaVie acai beverage. (Ray, who likely doesn't have to pinch pennies, seemed astounded at the cost of MonaVie when a guest presented it on her talk show.)

Introduced to the United States in 2000 by brothers Jeremy and Ryan Black after Ryan and a friend learned about the berries and their purported health benefits while visiting Brazil, acai has blown past the goji berry as the wonder fruit of the moment. (Goji berries, also touted for their health-promoting qualities, are still going fairly strong, with sales topping $9.5 million in the past year, up from $8.3 million the year before, according to Spins.) The Blacks' company, Sambazon, makes only modest claims for its products, simply noting that, in addition to being the rare fruit that offers heart-healthy omega fats, acai is rich in antioxidants.

To which many nutritionists will say, "So what?" Any dark-skinned fruit or bright-hued vegetable contains antioxidants -- compounds that keep potentially damaging "free radical" molecules from running rampant in the body, wreaking havoc on cells and DNA.

There's some dispute as to whether acai juice has more antioxidants than the juice of other fruits; the Washington-based food industry watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest notes that acai is only a middling source of antioxidants, providing more than, say, apple juice, but less than pomegranate or Concord grape juice. Sambazon's Jeremy Black disputes that, saying tests finding more antioxidants in pomegranate juice pitted pure pomegranate juice against acai juice blends containing juice from fruits less rich in antioxidants.

The point may ultimately be moot. While we almost certainly need some antioxidants, licensed nutritionist Monica Reinagel (who's based in Baltimore and writes a blog at http://www.nutritiondata.com) points out that after a certain point, we don't need more.

Eating the government-recommended daily course of five servings of vegetables and two of fruit -- which only one in five of us actually does -- likely delivers all the antioxidants we need, Reinagel says, at least if we vary the fruits and vegetables we choose. After that, any further antioxidants may well be superfluous. "You reach a point of diminishing returns," she says.


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