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No Matter How You Say It, Acai Comes With Some Pronounced Doubts

By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

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

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.

In any case, the mere presence of antioxidants in a food doesn't tell us much about that food's health benefits. Vitamin E and beta carotene are both antioxidants whose presumed utility in preventing disease has been called into question by major studies. Because we haven't made a dent in identifying all the compounds contained in fruits and vegetables -- much less assessed the value of those we do know about -- we don't know whether there's anything special about acai compared to other berries, Reinagel observes.

Mark Kantor, an associate professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland, says he's scanned the scientific literature and hasn't found reputable research to support any of the health claims acai's marketers are making.

"Unfortunately," Kantor says, "lots of Americans like to take the easy way out. They're looking for a miracle food. But they'll have to keep looking, because I don't think one exists."

Having said that, acai's not likely to do harm. Except to your credit card, that is.

The questionable health benefits attributed to acai are only half the story. As CSPI warned at a press conference last week, consumers using credit cards to enroll in "free" trials of acai products advertised via e-mail and on the Internet are being bilked big time.

After sharing credit-card information to cover shipping and handling, consumers are being hit by surprise monthly charges, often before they even receive their trial shipment. Those charges, ranging from $59 to $89, are extremely hard to contest with the companies, whom CSPI reports are difficult to reach by telephone and otherwise uncooperative.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is working with CSPI to shed light on acai Internet scams. Sambazon, which sells its products in health food stores and on its own Web site, is not among the companies accused of dirty dealings and in fact helps scammed customers find their way to the Better Business Bureau.

If you're still keen on trying acai, better to buy products in person at your local health food store. Or you could skip the acai and stick with blueberries instead. They're packed with antioxidants, relatively inexpensive and available year-round; frozen's just as good as fresh.

And I've yet to hear of anyone's being bilked by a blueberry scam.

Check out today's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer shares her adventures in yogurt-making and reminds readers to vote for a new MisFit. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." Go to Wednesday's Food section to find Nourish, a weekly feature with a recipe for healthful eating. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@washpost.com.

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