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)

Healthy Living: Good for You and Good for the Planet

Many of us in the “over-something” crowd are a little overweight. Maybe more than a little. We were skinny kids who played outdoors and ran and walked and bicycled. Or we were a bit on the chubby side, but worked hard to battle back that baby fat with exercise and healthy eating.

Now that we’re older, we work at desks all day and rush through breakfast, lunch, or dinner — sometimes all three — by driving through a fast-food restaurant. On the weekends, if we’ve been really good workerbees all week, we treat ourselves by driving to our favorite coffee venue for a well-earned latte or an iced mocha (Extra whip, please!). No worries. We’ll make up for the excess and the lack of exercise by drinking diet sodas the rest of the day.

Step on that scale and pay attention.

Step on that scale and pay attention.

Eventually, our less-than active lifestyle and unhealthy food choices catch up with us. Our cholesterol rises along with the numbers on that sleek digital scale (the one that looks so good in the bathroom, as long as we’re not standing on it). But we’re okay, really, and we feel almost as good as we did when we were teens — or so we tell ourselves. We talk ourselves into thinking that two-year old pair of jeans really did shrink in the wash last week, and that the spare tire around our middle is called “love handles” because it’s so sexy.

Then one day, our doctor gives us a warning. We’re bordering on obese. Or our cholesterol is out of control. Or we show signs of pre-diabetes. Or our triglycerides have shot up. Suddenly, we have to face it: We’re not kids anymore, and we’re definitely not healthy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the term obese means, “having a very high amount of body fat in relation to lean body mass, or Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher.” What’s a BMI? “A measure of an adult’s weight in relation to his or her height, specifically the adult’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his or her height in meters.” We have to have some body fat. But, for most of us, a BMI of 30 or higher turns us into a ticking coronary time bomb. (BMI doesn’t directly measure the amount of body fat. According to the CDC, some athletes have high BMIs, without being fat at all.)

Picture that slim, healthy person you used to be. Imagine, like a sculpture waiting to be revealed by chipping away a block of marble, that the real you is still inside of the body you’re wearing today. Maybe you’re not  obese, but you feel like you’ve put on a heavy overcoat that won’t come off. You can do something about it. But you can’t afford to wait.

Shed extra pounds and bring your body back to health.

Picture that slim, healthy person you used to be.

It’s time to make changes to bring back your health. If you’re serious about losing weight and regaining your vitality, try the following tips. Some of them will have the added benefit of helping the planet while helping you achieve your goals.

START TODAY

Get the go-ahead and then get going. Of course, the first step in every weight-loss or exercise program is to talk with your doctor. Once you have clearance and know what diet is best for you, you can start using the tips below to work toward better health.

Calculate your BMI. The CDC provides a handy Body Mass Index calculator. All you need to know is your weight in pounds and your height in feet and inches.

Make exercise a habit. Get on the treadmill, ride a bike, or take a vigorous walk. You’ll want to keep moving (actively, now, let’s not be slackers) for at least 30 minutes nearly every day. Work out five or six times per week — more, if you want faster results.

Getting the right amount of exercise doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here are some choices the CDC recommends.

walking 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking) every week and
weight training muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest,  shoulders, and arms).
OR
jogging 1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., jogging or running) every week and
weight training muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest,  shoulders, and arms).
OR
walking An equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity andjogging
weight training muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest,  shoulders, and arms).
Get vigorous exercise every day.

Get vigorous exercise every day.

If you’ve been seriously inactive and are just getting back to exercising, begin with 10- or 15-minute blocks two or three times a day, and build up to your goal. Work up a sweat. Burn some calories. When you’re up to the challenge, bike or walk on short trips instead of driving a car or taking a cab. You’ll not only help your heart, you’ll help your planet by cutting down on the use of fossil fuels and the emissions they produce.

Focus on calories. There’s no getting around it. If you want to lose weight, you need to focus on calories. One pound is equal to 3,500 calories. Want to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week? Then you’ll either have to take in 500 – 1,000 fewer calories per day, or you’ll have to burn them off.

Whether you love eating out or stick to your local food producer, this useful food database from Calorie King has invaluable information about calorie counts for your favorite foods.

A word of caution. If you have diabetes, you can’t just pay attention to calories. You also must focus specifically on carbohydrates. Unfortunately a low carb diet doesn’t always translate into a low calorie diet. Cheese, bacon, ribs, and sausage are very low in carbs but have a lot of calories — not to mention a lot of saturated fat. An excellent resource for people with diabetes who use the exchange system is the Diabetic Exchange List, available for free from the Mayo Clinic.

Eat less meat. We all need protein, but we don’t need all of our protein to come from animals. If you don’t feel you can give up meat every day, try one or two meatless days a week. It’s healthier for you, and healthier for our planet, too. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization blamed livestock production for contributing 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — both from the methane the animals produce and from the use of fossil fuels to produce their feed and transport the meat.

Opt for the veggie version. Try an alternative to breakfast meats, such as those from Morningstar Farms. Egg Beaters are a good alternative to fresh eggs, and the “not really butter” spreads taste better than you might think. Veggie burgers can be tasty alternatives to hamburger and they won’t clog your arteries.

Draw a line down the middle. Want an easy way to cut back on carbs and calories? Try dividing your plate into halves. Fill one half with fruits and vegetables. That leaves just half a plate to fill with everything else.

Skip processed foods. Processed foods often contain huge amounts of sugar, fat, and calories. Excessive calories lead to excess weight around your middle. And processed foods result in “increased risk for many diseases and health conditions, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and stroke,” according to the CDC. But that’s not all. Processing foods and packaging them requires massive amounts of energy and materials. That’s a bad combination both for your health and for the environment.

You really don’t have to clean your plate. In their day, Mom and Dad may not have agreed, but the compulsion to clean your plate easily leads to overeating. That’s not to say you should waste that extra food. If you’re at home, put it in a leftover dish and pop it in the fridge for a later meal. If you’re eating out, ask for a “people bag.” Just don’t throw good food away. It’s not only a waste of the food on your plate, it’s a waste of the energy used to grow it, transport it, and cook it. Think about all that carbon being pumped into the atmosphere for nothing!

Do your homework before eating out. If you love eating at restaurants, check their websites for nutritional information before you leave the house. Make wise choices, then stick to them. It may be easier to keep your resolve if you make your decision before you are tempted by the heaping plates that pass before you. You’ll also learn things on line that the menu may not tell you. For example, you might find that Cobb salad you love, the one that looked like it would be so good for you, has 1,600 calories and 40 carbs.

Getting healthy is good for you and the planet.

Getting healthy is good for you and the planet.

Make good choices. Men’s Health provides a handy online, “Eat This, Not That!” guide to help you make healthy food choices at 10,000+ restaurants and supermarkets. You can view a few samples for free on the site, but will be prompted to purchase full online access (current price: $9.95). Or sign up for their free email subscription for twice weekly tips about restaurants and food choices.

Keep track. Sensible weight loss requires paying attention to what, when, and where you are eating, as well as how much. Recording what you eat gives you a realistic picture of what you’re actually consuming. It’s easy to forget that soda you had at break or the extra helping of mashed potatoes — unless you write it all down.

Munch the good stuff all day long. Eat fruits and vegetables several times during the day, not just at dinner. Your snacks and lunches should include a fruit and/or a vegetable, or you’ll never get all that you need in a day.

Eat that fiber! Fiber and whole grains are important for your digestive system. Don’t skip them.

Make a fist. Here’s another tip: If you can’t live without potatoes, rice, and pasta, limit yourself to a serving the size of your fist.

It’s a journey, share it. The path to robust health is one we all must walk every day in order to achieve a healthy body and life. If we get off track, the only thing to do is to get back on. Don’t get discouraged. Any change you make is a good one. A loss of even 5 percent body fat may cut your risk of all sorts of diseases. So get yourself motivated. Motivate those around you. It’s much easier to change your lifestyle when you’re not doing it alone.

WHAT’S YOUR STORY?

Have you had success losing weight, lowering your cholesterol, or controlling diabetes with diet and exercise? Then we want to know about it. Share your weight loss and dietary tips with other Blue Planet Green Living readers. Tell us in a comment, or send us an email. We’ll publish the best of them in future posts.

Julia Wasson and Belinda Geiger

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)