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article imageAçaí berry may not be the miracle food you think it is

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     May 4, 2009 in Health
Many of us are currently being bombarded with spam regarding the benefits of the açaí berry. It is claimed to have powerful antioxidant properties and other health benefits, such as effortless weight loss. Let’s take a look at this miracle food.
What is the açaí berry?
The açaí berry comes from the açaí palm tree (Euterpe oleracea Martius), a palm tree native to South America in the region around the Amazon River. It is an important fruit in the region. Internationally, it is best known for its “heart of palm”.
Hearts of palm are the inner core and growing bud of palm trees. It is usually eaten in salads, and although it used to be very expensive, it is now commonly available, even in dollar stores. It used to be collected in the wild, which is unfortunate, since taking the core of a palm tree, usually kills the tree. Since the trees are now cultivated, this is no longer a valid complaint.
The açaí palm tree produces a fruit in the form of a purple/black drupe with a length of about 1 inch. The berry-like fruits grow in bunches of several hundred berries.
Until recently, the açaí berry was largely unknown outside the Amazon region, for good reason. They do not last very long and are very hard to transport. Because of that, the berries are freeze-dried and sold as a powder.
Health claims
The health-food industry is always looking for new products for its growing customer base and has fairly recently decided that açaí berries are a super food. They are said to contain enormous amounts of antioxidants, and this is used to claim near-magical properties. Just a sample of the health claims:
Açaí has very high levels of fibers
Alleviates diabetes
Boosts energy levels
Cleanses and detoxifies the body of infectious toxins
Contains several important minerals
Enhances sexual desire and performance
Enhances visual acuity
Fights cancerous cells
Helps maintain healthy heart function
Improves circulation
Improves digestive function
Improves mental clarity/focus
Is an extremely powerful free radical fighter
Minimizes inflammation
Normalizes and regulates cholesterol levels
Prevents arteriosclerosis
Promotes healthier and younger-looking skin
Promotes sound sleep
Promotes weight loss
Provides all vital vitamins
Slows down the aging process
Strengthens your immune system
Are açaí berries really that good?
Executive summary: NO!
There is nothing wrong with açaí berries. They are a good, healthful food. Since they have been eaten by native peoples for times immemorial, we can assume that they are reasonably safe. Wait a minute, "assume"?! Yes, assume. Reality is that not much research has been done on the subject, and that much of that rare research is too limited or of too low a quality to be taken seriously.
What about the antioxidant properties? Are they really so remarkable? The limited available research suggests that there is indeed antioxidant activity, but this can hardly be called remarkable. A study by Eugenia Kuskoski et al. mentions the following hierarchy:
acerola (most antioxidant activity)
mango
strawberry
grapes
açaí
guava
mulberry
graviola
passion fruit
cupuaçu
pineapple (least antioxidant activity)
In other words, if antioxidant activity is what you want, you are better off eating strawberries and grapes. They are a lot cheaper, and they can be bought in the form of fresh fruit, not in the form of a processed freeze-dried powder.
How expensive is it? A bottle with 60 Vcaps costs CAD 19.19 + tax at Noah's Natural Foods. Each Vcap contains 540mg of açaí extract. Due to lack of data, it is unclear how much of the natural fruit this represents.
One site claims that it takes 7 grammes of açaí pulp to obtain 1 gramme of freeze-dried product. Well then, that means that a bottle of this extract represents (540 x 60 x 7)/1000 or 226.8grammes of the original pulp. Said otherwise, the equivalent of 1kg of original pulp costs CAD 85.00. At about CAD 5.00 for a kg of fresh grapes, you could buy 17kg of these.
Needless to say that, at least where antioxidants are concerned, the açaí berry Vcaps are no bargain, but if you suffer from FWD, they may be a good choice for you.
Furthermore, the potential buyer must be aware of the fact that while there is in vitro evidence of the activity of antioxidants, in vivo evidence is quite limited. Worse, there is evidence that large amounts of antioxidants are actually harmful to our health.
Açaí berries are said to be of tremendous help with weight loss. There is no evidence whatsoever that this is true. On the contrary. Açaí berries contain far more fat than most fruits and they are therefore far more likely to contribute to weight gain than they are to help with weight loss.
The evidence for the health benefits of açaí berries have turned out to be so meagre, that popular talk show hosts, who helped creating the fad in the first place, are now feeling obligated to distance themselves from these claims.
One good example is Oprah Winfrey. While she has this article by a Dr. Perricone on her website, claiming that açaí is a superfood, and nature's energy fruit, she has now posted a warning that she is not associated with any company peddling açaí berry products, and that she does not endorse any product or company selling them.
Beware the açaí berry scam
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is warning the public not to take part in free trials. Several websites are giving people the possibility to try açai berry products for free. All you have to pay, is three or four dollars of shipping and handling. This is a scam to get hold of your credit card number. Once you received the first product, they may start to charge your credit card for larger amounts and it may be very hard to stop them.
The Better Business Bureau has already announced in January 2009 that thousands of consumers are being scammed in this manner.
Conclusion
The açaí berry is an honest and good food for the people who live in the region where it is native. It does not have any "superfood" properties and does not have any properties that contribute to spectacular health. It will not help you lose weight. You are far better off buying fresh fruit and vegetables in your local grocery store.
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References
Acai berry products: What are the health benefits?, Katherine Zeratsky, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 23 May 2008
http://www.cspinet.org/new/200903231.html Consumers warned of web-based açai scams, 23 March 2009
In Vitro and in Vivo Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Capacities of an Antioxidant-Rich Fruit and Berry Juice Blend. Results of a Pilot and Randomized, Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Study, Gitte S. Jensen et al., Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 22 August 2008
Dr. Perricone's 10 Superfoods: No. 1: Açaí, oprah.com, retrieved 4 May 2009
Frutos tropicais silvestres e polpas de frutas congeladas: atividade antioxidante, polifenóis e antocianinas, Ciência Rural, July/Aug 2006
MonaVie and Other "Superfruit" Juices, Skeptoid, 5 February 2008
Oral Transmission of Chagas Disease by Consumption of Açaí Palm Fruit, Brazil, Aglaêr A. Nóbrega et al, Emerging Infectious Diseases, 15 April 2009
Phytochemical and Nutrient Composition of the Freeze-Dried Amazonian Palm Berry, Euterpe oleraceae Mart. (Acai), Alexander G. Schauss et al, Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 7 October 2006
'Superfood' Acai May Not Be Worth Price, Susan Donaldson James, abcNews, 12 December 2008
The Truth About Oprah and Açaí and MonaVie, oprah.com, retrieved 4 May 2009
Warning letter regarding açaí products on sharpweblabs.com, FDA, 9 July 2008
Warning letter regarding MonaVie products, FDA, 6 July 2007
Weight-loss Berry Claiming Oprah Endorsement Makes Wallets Slim and Consumers Angry Warns BBB, Better Business Bureau, 5 January 2009
More about Acai, Euterpe oleracea, Miracle food
 
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