Acai – Amazon Wonder Berry or Just Another Craze?

Harvesting the acai berry. Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Brasil2

If you listen to the hype, you may begin to think that the acai (pronounced a-sigh-EE) berry is the wonder food for everything that could possibly ail you. The ads are all over the Internet, in magazines, on television. They lure you in with questionable (if not outright fabricated) celebrity endorsements, “free” sample offers, and broad claims of almost mythical proportions.

Although acai is most commonly advertised as a weight-loss product, marketers also claim that it provides increased energy levels, improved sexual performance, improved digestion, detoxification, high fiber content, high antioxidant content, improved skin appearance, improved heart health, improved sleep, and reduction of cholesterol levels.

The acai berry has been touted as one of the most highly beneficial dietary supplements on the market. And WalletPop named it the #1 hottest product of 2008, after marketers dubbed the berry a “super food.”

But despite all the hype, groups are challenging acai’s health and weight-loss claims, and warning consumers to beware of acai berry scams. With so much conflicting information, it’s hard to know what is fact and what is fiction.

What It Is

The acai berry grows in Central and South America on eight different varieties of palm trees, primarily in swamps and floodplains — areas with heavy rainfall or standing water. The berries are small, round and black-purple in color. You might find them similar in appearance to a blueberry, but with a large, inedible seed in the center. Acai palm trees are tall and slender, reaching between 50 to 100 feet. Due to recent demand for their berries, acai palm trees are currently cultivated primarily for their fruit; but their fronds can also be made into hats, mats, baskets, and brooms.

Unripened acai berries and acai palm fronds. Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Brasil2

Unripened acai berries and acai palm fronds. Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Brasil2

Acai is commercially available in a number of forms, including juice, pulp, powder, and capsules. It has been marketed as an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory, and an antibacterial. It’s also said to contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential to human health.

Acai’s other chemical contents are impressive, too:

  • A concentration of 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes, and 10 to 30 times the anthocyanins of red wine, which helps combat premature aging
  • Monounsaturated (healthy) fats, dietary fiber, and phytosterols to help promote cardiovascular and digestive health
  • Anthocyanins and flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants that help prevent free radicals from forming in the body and starting chain reactions that damage cells
  • Amino acids and trace minerals that are vital to proper muscle contraction and regeneration

Amazon Wonder Berry?

Although some people say they have more energy and feel healthier after taking acai dietary supplements, these claims are not supported by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But the medical community does agree that — like the cranberry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, and blueberry — the acai berry, carries antioxidants.

Acai berries can be blended and mixed with granola. Photo: iStockphoto/Brasil2

Claims of weight loss from acai are unfounded, however, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that acai pills will help shed pounds, flatten tummies, cleanse colons, enhance sexual desire, or perform any of the other commonly advertised functions,” according to a press release from CSPI.

Kristina Conner, a licensed naturopathic physician and Assistant Professor of Naturopathic Medicine at National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, Illinois, said naturopaths sometimes work with the acai berry, because it is a natural substance. But she agrees that the berry is not a one-stop, quick fix for weight loss or any of the other ailments the companies are claiming the berry can improve.

“It is important to address lifestyle things first. So supplements including something like the acai would be considered beneficial on top of making healthy lifestyle changes — like a good diet, sleep, exercise, all of that stuff. Relying on just one agent like [the acai berry], no matter what it is, is not the wisest course. If you look at things like weight loss or cardiovascular disease, it is never one cause, so it should never be one fix,” Conner said.

According to Conner, the acai berry is a reasonable alternative to drinking red wine, because the two products are both preventive substances. Because many people do not incorporate the acai berry into their normal diets, some people can see positive results where others may not.

“There is probably going to be a percentage of people who do [an acai] diet and are going to respond really well to it, but then there is a larger percentage who probably aren’t. They need to make sure they are not throwing out common sense when they try a new diet or a new product,” Conner said.

A Pricey Alternative

Mark Stibich, a physician specializing in health behavior, has expressed concerns about the sudden and tremendous fame of the acai berry. “A week’s supply of acai berry juice will cost you about $40 (over $2,000 a year). For that much money, there are a lot of more proven things you can do to increase your health.” Yet Stibich said that the fruit did hold at least some promise, commenting, “It is true that the acai berry has about 10 times the antioxidants of grapes and twice the antioxidants of blueberries, but that’s not enough nutritional punch for all the claims.”

Even nutritionists are weary of the numerous health benefit claims associated with the acai berry. I spoke with 10 nutritionists and dieticians, all of whom said they were unfamiliar with the real benefits of the acai berry. None said they would recommend any acai products until they themselves became more familiar with the fruit.

Cancer Fighters?

Although other research studies are reportedly in progress, a recent study by the University of Florida is the only research that has been completed to investigate the benefits of the acai berry. Researchers at the University of Florida found that in a laboratory setting, acai berry extract caused a significant decrease in cultured cancer cells. During the testing, various concentrations of acai extract were applied to the cells. After a period of 24 hours, the results varied from 35 percent to 86 percent of the cancer cells dying. The acai berry stands up well in a lab setting, but this claim has yet to be tested and proven in humans.

“A lot of claims are being made, but most of them haven’t been tested scientifically,” Assistant Professor at the University of Florida Stephen Talcott said in a press release. “We are just beginning to understand the complexity of the acai berry and its health-promoting effects.”

The acai berry has just recently become popular, so not all of the claims have been researched. But with time, Talcott said that more nutritional information will be revealed.

“One reason so little is known about acai berries is that they’re perishable and are traditionally used immediately after picking. Products made with processed acai berries have only been available for about five years, so researchers in many parts of the world have had little or no opportunity to study them,” Talcott said.

Beware of Scams

Since the berry’s popularity has exploded in the past few months, offers for free acai berry trials are becoming ubiquitous online.

But remember how your parents told you, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is”? That warning is certainly applicable to any company claiming it will send you acai products for free. Free trial offers for acai berry supplements are rarely — if ever — free.

The CSPI and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) said companies offering free trials of diet pills made with the acai berries have tricked thousands of consumers using fake celebrity endorsements and blogs to lure customers into buying the acai products.

According to the Better Business Bureau, FWM Laboratories, Advanced Wellness Research, AcaiBurn, FX Supplements, and SFL Nutrition all received an F rating, which is the BBB’s lowest rating. The BBB evaluates companies on numerous categories before assigning a grade, such as the number of customer complaints and a company’s ability to adequately resolve issues.

Purchasing acai products like this sauce can be pricey. Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Brasil2

Purchasing acai products like this sauce can be pricey. Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Brasil2

Central Coast Nutraceuticals, FX Supplements, FWM Laboratories and Advanced Wellness Research are just some of the businesses accused of scamming customers into accepting “free” trials. These companies reportedly hook consumers by advertising a “free” bottle of acai pills, for example, and by claiming that the customer only has to pay for shipping and handling. Many customers neglect to read the terms and conditions pages, which often specify that the total price for the bottle of pills will be charged to the credit card used to pay the shipping and handling fee. Often, the companies will sign consumers up for a monthly subscription of the product and charge them for more bottles of the pills that the customers unwittingly “consented” to receiving each month when agreeing with the fine print. Each of these bottles costs approximately $80 and will be billed to a credit card every month until the customer calls and cancels the subscription.

I signed up for a “free” trial of Acai Berry Edge in order to test the scam claims. For this product, the terms and conditions specified that the customer would “Get two bottles of Acai Berry Edge free for 21 days during the trial period. You invest $3.97 s&h today then $39.95 per bottle at day 21 only if you are satisfied.” I sent both bottles back within the 21 day time frame, yet was still charged $79.90. Upon calling the company, a representative said that they had not received the bottles. Yet I intentionally sent the bottles back with a delivery confirmation receipt from the U.S. Postal Service. With the delivery confirmation number, the representatives could not dispute that the bottles had been returned. Even if you do read the fine print and return the bottles, make sure to send the product back with a confirmation number from the postal service or an express carrier. Those few extra quarters could end up saving you $80 — or more — in the long run.

Connor said people can ask the company for objective information about the product or studies published about the product to determine whether or not any health claims made about products are true. She also recommended asking a health care practitioner who knows about natural products and cautioned consumers to always be skeptical.

“If people find that it is one company offering a particular type of product no one else offers, or if it seems very expensive — more expensive than other products on the market that are like it — that always raises my suspicion level,” she said.

The Jury’s Still Out

Much is still unknown about the acai berry. And, with studies still in progress, health care professionals are understandably cautious about judging the berry’s merits as a “super food.” Nutritionists say that, for most people, taking moderate amounts of acai supplements won’t negatively impact your physical health. But it just might hurt the health of your wallet.

Sabrina Potirala

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)