Acai: Is It Worth the Hype?

by in Food News, Healthy Tips, August 25, 2009

acaipulp_flickr

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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Comments (47)

  1. PFL says:

    I have been drinking this Mona Vie stuff as well and it has not done a thing for me. For almost $40 a bottle you would think it would do something..but for me nothing for the past 12 weeks. I bought my last bottle last week. They keep saying one more week, right.Never again. It is a rip off. LivingCasually, it sounds like you are a Mona Vie dealer. My cholesterol has not changed nor has my joint pain been relieved. The company may not make the claim but the sales people do.

  2. No more HB Meds with the serious side effects for me!!! I eat Xocai Healthy Chocolate (cold pressed, unprocessed cacao) with Acai Berries. AND that is just the tip of the iceberg of health benefits I have personally enjoyed. Do the research on clinical studies……try Xocai and see for yourself… http://www.livehealthyeatchocolate.com

  3. VA-L says:

    PFL-

    Everybody is different. Just because it doesn't work for you, doesn't mean it won't have benefits for someone else!

  4. PFL says:

    I never implied it won't work for someone else…They are welcome to it..To each his/her own.

  5. KBF says:

    A company should stand behind it's product with a money back guarantee and research. While I do think there is both hype for this and some research it would seem the jury is still out and therefore caution is in order. I know people who take Mona Via and swear by it and I did sample it but until there is scientific proof to show me that there are no side effects I will just watch. I am watching the research on resveratrol much closer as it seems to be proving it's worth. There is lots of good information and research published on this. I am looking at a product called Vivix from Shaklee right now having used their products for almost 25 years now and so started a business. (not trying to hide it) I have 11 children and to say I am skeptical and picky would be an understatement. I research everything that goes in and on the body of by children and myself. I personally am keeping an eye on resveratrol! Very interesting research!

  6. jolie says:

    Wow, impressive how your were able to remove my earlier comment.

  7. Sharon says:

    I too tried the acai supplement. Took just 1 – 1000 mg cap to begin but when I started taking 2 per day,
    my blood pressure started going up (have ever had bp problems) and I became jiggerty. Also, it made
    me feel tired all the time. Beware of this, it's not for everyone.

  8. Faye says:

    All very interesting. No need to be unfriendly about other opinions. That's what i like most about this country 'freedom of speech' Thank u Kristine for this opportunity to share. Anyway when i was trying acai, i used mostly the liguid forms mixed with other berries and or smoothie drinks. This went on for a little less than 2 months. My skin became so radiant, brighter and younger looking. I knew something was different because everyone wanted to know what i was doing. At the time i did not realize it was acai because it was before all the hype and advertisment. I was in the market for anti-oxidants, nothing more. After 2 months i started regurgitating any product with the acai ingredient in it. I am still tempted to try the product again but probably won't unless unknown. I am now investigating 'Gogi' and decided to stick with fruits and vegetables i grew up with, excersise and plenty of water.

  9. Elsee says:

    I have been drinking 3 oz organic acai daily for well over 2 yrs (I mix w/ organic Goji ). I am proud to say that I have not been sick a single day – not a sniffle or sore throat since I started a daily dose of acai. A colleague that sits cheek to cheek with me at the office has been out of work multiple times with week long illnesses suffering from common ailments: flu, cold, bronchitis, viruses, etc.;. I do happen to be one of the fortunate people that doesn't get ill often, but I use to be good for at least one or two nasty colds each year!! I convinced my 74 year old father to drink it daily, the inflammation (cancer cells) in his lower bowel seem to have disappeared. At least during his last exam the doc's didn't see anything! I am not making any medical claim whatsoever, but with Acai's antioxidants and being considered a "super fruit" I am a believer that it does have health benefits. Unfortunately, I am not thinner and I don't see rejuvination when I look in the mirror – still looking my age!

  10. HollyM says:

    I’ve been using the acai by marketamerica. Their OPC3 is better though. It’s had a years of research and documented studies. I tried the Mon-a-Vie a couple of years ago and just didn’t like the taste. The main difference I’ve noticed since taking both the OPC3 and Acai is my skin is better, my dark circles are lighter, my reduction in sugar cravings have been a really great thing for me and I have more energy.

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