Health Food Scam: Acai Berries

From deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest comes the newest superfood: the Açaí berry. It has been hailed as a natural way to lose weight, slow the effects of aging and fight cancer.

Yeah, sure.

Okay, despite what you have heard about it, the acaí berry isn’t everything it’s cracked-up to be. Like many other so-called “superfoods” or “superfruits”, you can live a perfectly healthy life without ever eating an acaí berry or drinking acaí berry juice.

Acai palms, of the species Euterpe oleracea, consist of seven types of palm trees native to Central and South America. The name of the plant comes from the Tupian word ïwasa’i, ‘fruit that cries or expels water’.

The plants grow quickly, which is a good thing, since global demand has increased in recent years and acai are now grown mostly for their fruit and their hearts of palm. In a study of three traditional Caboclo (i.e. people of mixed Amerindian and European blood) populations in the Amazon region of Brazil, the açaí palm was described as the most important plant species because the fruit makes up such a major component of diet (up to 42% of the total food intake by weight) and is economically valuable in the region.In Brazil, as a whole, acai is consumed in many varieties and in various meals of the day, including in ice cream and as a flavored liqueur.

But, that’s not why you’re reading this blog, is it? You want to know if acai is something you should include in your diet. Okay. Okay. I’ll get to that.

First, is the acai better than all other fruits? Well, no it isn’t. As mentioned in a previous blog, the Kakadu “billy goat” plum has the highest level of Vitamin C of any fruit. So, they can’t make a claim contrary to that without evidence. About 80% of the volume of each berry consists of the pit and the berry itself has such a high fat content that it is usually available outside the harvest area only in juice form or in products like yogurt.

Acai (pronounced “ah-sigh-ee”) is exported as a thick pulp and sold in a capsule, powder or juice form at health food stores and via the Internet. But, acai was virtually unknown outside the USA until 2001, when two brothers, Ryan and Jeremy Black, began to sell acai through Sambazon Inc., promoting its antioxidant properties. Today billion-dollar beverage giants, including Coca-Cola., Pepsi, and Anheuser-Busch., are adding the fruit to their beverage lineups, according to The Wall Street Journal. It’s also found in products from Stonyfield Farm and Haagen-Dazs. Procter & Gamble Co. recently infused acai into its Herbal Essence shampoos and conditioners. So, acai is a big money-maker. Sales of acai products jumped to $13.5 million in 2007, up from $435,000 two years before that, according to natural-food tracker Spins Inc.

As far as the medical claims of the proselytizers of the acai berry, they make numerous claims about how great the berry is, often without supporting evidence, so that it’s hard to keep up.

For one thing, they claim that acai products are helpful for weight loss. However, the US Federal Drug Administration has not evaluated acai for its efficiency in losing weight. Despite acai products being linked to popular TV talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, in the later part of 2008, ABC News reported that Oprah’s lawyers began investigating potential claims against acai supplement manufacturers who suggested that frequent Oprah guest Dr. Mehmet Oz had recommended their product or acai berry products in general for their use in losing weight. Actually, what Dr Oz had said was that acai looked like a product that had health benefits and that was it. Dermatologist Dr. Nicholas Perricone, another frequent Oprah guest, also mentioned acai – along with other foods – as being “full of nutrients”. But, Drs Oz and Perricone never said anything about acai’s supposed weight-loss qualities.

Susanne Talcott, a Texas A&M researcher who conducted a human study that showed acai is absorbed by the body and has the potential to bring some health benefits, says

“Most [weight loss] claims I am aware of are not validated at all,”

and further that

“[The study] is a good start, but no basis for some of the outrageous claims that are made and unfortunately believed by consumers”.

Like many other supposed “superfruits”, marketers tend to ignore science, and the Real World in general, in order to boost sales. In this case, it seems that they had realized that people might be more likely to buy their product if Oprah had appeared to endorse it. Makes sense. After all, when Oprah recommends a book on her show, sales of that book do tend to go up. Plus, the perceived endorsement of a cardiothoracic surgeon, like Dr Oz, couldn’t hurt. Even if it was a total frakking lie.

In a comparative study of Acai against ten other fruits juices derived from the natural pulp, the ratings of their antioxidant capacity went like this:

  1. acerola
  2. mango
  3. strawberry
  4. grapes
  5. açaí
  6. guava
  7. mulberry
  8. graviola
  9. passion fruit
  10. cupuaçu
  11. pineapple

So, you’re better off drinking commonly available grape juice, instead of acai juice. If you can find them, you could also get your hands on some mangos or strawberries. The acerola is another plant that grows in Central America, including Puerto Rico and it has been found growing in Hawaii, probably introduced there by Puerto Rican immigrants during the plantation days. Acerola and mango might not be readily found in most US groceries, but strawberries and grapes can be found in various forms on supermarket shelves.

In yet another study, sponsored by Pom Wonderful (which markets pomegranite juice, hence the spiffy name), three commercially available juice brands, containing unspecified percentages of acai juice, were tested against other types of juices and drinks for their in vitro antioxidant capacity. Like the other study, acai didn’t do as well as other, more commonly available, drinks. The rating were highest for:

  • pomegranate juice (good thing for Pom Wonderful);
  • Concord grape juice;
  • blueberry juice; and
  • red wine.

Acai ranked roughly equal to:

  • black cherry; and
  • cranberry juice

And above:

  • orange juice;
  • apple juice; and
  • tea

So, what is so great about Acai? Seriously?

Now, I’m not saying that it doesn’t have nutritional properties. While the dark variety has higher ratings than the white, Acai uniformly does worse in scientific studies when compared to other fruit juices. In a study of different açaí varieties for their antioxidant capacity, a white species displayed no antioxidant activity against different oxygen radicals, whereas the purple variety most often used commercially was excellent against peroxyl radicals, good against peroxynitrite and poor against hydroxyl radicals. Freeze-dried açaí powder was found to have high antioxidant activity against superoxide (your body produces this to fight invading germs, but levels that are too high can be lethal) and peroxyl radicals and milder activity for peroxynitrite (can damage a wide array of molecules in cells, including DNA and proteins) and hydroxyl radicals (can damage virtually all types of macromolecules: amino acids, carbohydrates, as well as mutate nucleic acids, and also peroxidize lipids). The powder was reported to inhibit hydrogen peroxide-induced oxidation in white blood cells, and to have a slight stimulatory effect on nitric oxide production, which helps your body function better. Extracts of açaí seeds were reported to have antioxidant capacity against peroxyl radicals, similar to the capacity of the pulp, with higher antioxidant capacity against peroxynitrite and hydroxyl radicals.

Sorry about all the technical words, but science is seldom simple.

In simpler language, Dr. David Katz, associate clinical professor of public health and medicine at Yale University says that the hype surrounding acai often gets in the way of the science and that we’d do just as well just eating more fruits and vegetables and while there is some merit to the rich antioxidant content of exotic fruits such as acai, consumers can get the same punch in dark chocolate and an array of other foods, such as oranges, tomatoes and blueberries.

Anyway, yes Acai can do your body some good. However, the simple fact is that there are plenty of readily-available foods on grocery shelves all across the USA that are just as good for you, if not better. But, the acai-peddlers are counting on a number of things to market their product, despite the scientific evidence against various claims that they have made about it.

For one thing, they know that a lot of people are desperate to lose weight and they want to do it without a lot of execise. So, offering something they can simply eat attracts a lot of buyers. People buy acai from stores who don’t even market it as a weight-loss product, but they buy it for the purpose of losing weight.

Second, they also understand that people don’t like growing old and will spend big bucks to slow the effects of advancing years upon their bodies. This is simple, but understandable, vanity and it plays right into the hands of the acai pimps.

Third, everyone has a dread fear of cancer and hyping acai as an anti-cancer supplement plays right into peoples’ deepest fears. My mother died of ovarian cancer, my grandmother of pancreatic cancer, so being afraid of getting cancer myself is something I understand completely.

So, while acai does have some nutritional value, it isn’t an outstanding “wonder food”, as it is marketed. You can live just as well by eating more of the commonly-available foods I have already mentioned.

Ultimately, the marketers of the acai berry products are using fear and vanity to sell their product and it is a product that we really don’t need.

Anyone who relies on fear and vanity to sell you something is some one who should not be trusted and you shouldn’t give them your money.

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5 Responses to “Health Food Scam: Acai Berries”

  1. wreathconnection Says:

    I Love your site!!! Come visit me at http://wreathconnection.wordpress.com/ or http://www.wreathconnection.com or add me as a friend on http://myspace.com/wreathconnection

  2. Rick (mlm) Daley Says:

    What a great website this is, very informative and a lot of great information. But as far as all the juices that have come about in the mlm arena in the past few years, I’d say some are good and some are just plain bad and a big waste… but about 3 years ago I was recommended to take the acai berry because of a case of gaut that I was dealing with, so I joined and started taking the product… within 4 days my guat was gone… now note I am not involved with this company any longer but just relaying my experience… not to say this is what healed me, I’m just saying it’s the only thing I did differently and so it may have had some part in it and maybe not.

  3. John A. Says:

    Pretty interesting findings there. Nobody should be relying on one specific food for weight loss anyway.

  4. Cassie Maines Says:

    Great advise

  5. Ashley Says:

    Yeah please folks, dont fall for this! DONT PUT YOUR CREDIT CARD # IN ANY SITE, EVEN IF IT IS A httpS site, where the S is supposed to mean secured! If any of you get the urge to try Acai berry juice or other products, just go to your local health food store, or Wal*Mart has some of the Acai berry juice in the organic section. Although they seem high priced, they wont overcharge your credit card $399! Hope everyone reads this. I fell for this Acai berry scam and the colon cleanse scam last year. I drink Acai juice bought from walmart because I like the tangy taste, but I have not had any weight loss and I get sick just as often as I used to. I might as well eat a few strawberries and other fruits all day. Thats what they mean by weightloss in my opinion, anyway: You eat/drink fruit/fruitjuice and you may start making healthier life decisions, like fruit instead of chips or some other unhealthy dessert. I really hope I have saved at least one person from these scams. Saving one person means I have saved someone from being charged what they make per month for some stupid little pills they stuck an “acai berry” label on! THANKS SO MUCH FOR READING!

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