Acai: Is It Worth the Hype?

I searched “acai” and almost 15 million hits came back -- talk about popular! You can't miss the ads all over the internet promoting this "super food." Claims range from Viagra-like enhancements to weight loss to reducing wrinkles. But does this little wonder berry really do all that and more?
Before sitting down to write this, I searched “acai” and almost 15 million hits came back -- talk about popular! You can't miss the ads all over the internet promoting this "superfood." Claims range from Viagra-like enhancements to weight loss to reducing wrinkles. But does this little wonder fruit really do all that and more?
The California Link

Two California brothers, Ryan and Jeremy Black, "discovered" acai (pronounced "ah-sigh-EE") when they visited Brazil on a surfing trip; the berry was on the menu at many surf shacks and juice joints. After returning to the U.S., they co-founded Sambazon, a beverage company that incorporates the berry in juices, supplements and even sorbet. These days, they rake in $25 million a year selling acai products.

So, What Is It Exactly?

Acai berries are purple, grape-like berries that grow on the palm trees that thrive on forest edges, near rivers and streams. In the Amazon, acai palms cover a land area that's half the size of Switzerland (crazy, right?).

In Brazil, acai is a staple food. Locals typically enjoy the berries as a side to river fish or with toasted yucca. According to estimates, the 1.3 million people residents of Belem, Brazil (a town near the epicenter of acai commercial production) drink more than 200,000 liters of the juice daily.

In the U.S., acai now shows up in lots of forms -- juices, powders, frozen pulp, ice cream, jelly, liquor, smoothies and supplements. Head over to your local health food store or walk through Whole Foods, you won't get far without finding an acai product. What you won't find, however, is the fresh fruit. Since it is so perishable, you’ll have to go to Brazil to sample that.

Nutrition Facts

A four-ounce serving of pure acai has about 100 calories and 6 grams of fat. Surprisingly, more than 50% of those calories come from fat. Acai contains omega-9 fats, which have anti-inflammatory properties, but aren't one of the essential fatty acids (i.e., omega 6 and omega 3). Acai also has fiber, vitamin A, several minerals (iron and calcium, to name two) and good-for-you phytonutrients, including polysterols and anthocyanins.

What are phytonutrients exactly? Well, polysterols are plant components that research has linked to reducing cholesterol and helping to decrease immune system stress. Anthocyanins are potent antioxidants that give the fruit its deep purple color. Acai fruit pulp (what you see above)  is high in antioxidants -- it has more than cranberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries or blueberries. However, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that acai juice contained less anthocyanins than red wine and pomegranate juice.

Is It Safe?

All that sounds wonderful, no doubt, but what about too much of a good thing? There's not enough scientific evidence right now to show how much acai is considered safe, especially when you eat it (or take supplements) for a long period of time. Of course, all the ads and product labels out there claim acai brings a whole number of health benefits, including:

  • Curing allergies
  • Enhancing virility
  • Boosting energy
  • Improving sleep
  • Relieving arthritis
  • Weight loss

You name it and someone has probably testified that acai helped cure it, but there aren’t really any human studies to prove that any of that acai-specific hype is true. If anything, the berry provides the antioxidant benefits that other similar fruits also offer.

More on the Scams

While the Black brothers brought acai into the U.S. market, Dr. Nicholas Perricone appeared on the Oprah Winfrey and brought acai to the mainstream by dubbing it a "superfood." He believes the antioxidant properties have anti-aging qualities. Since that episode aired, you have probably seen Oprah’s face appearing on countless internet ads (I see them every time I log into Facebook). Oprah has posted this message on her site telling the world that she does not endorse these acai products.

There are also hundreds of websites making outrageous claims of weight loss. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published this article about some acai scams. I also found this site that makes readers aware of internet scams -- it lists numerous fake acai websites that you may have come across. Even Consumer Reports tells folks not to believe the hype. If you are unsure of a site or want to see if it’s reputable, you can always log onto the Better Business Bureau’s website and check for yourself.

The Bottom Line

Acai is a berry that contains tons of antioxidants, but no research supports the specific claim that it will make you a tiger in bed or a skinny minny. Is it better than all other fruits out there? Definitely not. Each fruit or veggie contains its share of special phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals -- over-consuming one food is not the answer. You can enjoy acai in a healthy diet mixed with a variety of other fruits and veggies. Buying expensive acai products, however, won’t solve your health or weight issues -- it’ll just slim down your wallet (not to mention perpetuate the "healthy food is too expensive" stigma).

Learn more about acai in these helpful New York Times and Los Angeles Times articles.

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