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Acai: The $15 million berry

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Acai berries dangle from a tree in the Brazilian rainforest. (Photo courtesy of Sambazon)

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"Acai" is featured on the packaging of this cream, but it is not listed as one of the product's active ingredients on BORBA's Web site. (Photo courtesy of BORBA)

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Baskets of freshly harvested acai berries. (Photo courtesy of Zola Acai)

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A basket of freshly harvested acai berries. (Photo courtesy of Sambazon)

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A farmer harvests acai berries in the Brazilian rainforest. (Photo courtesy of Sambazon)

First there was the pomegranate, but that is so yesterday. Then came the goji berry, now utterly passé. They were merely the precursors, it seems, to the latest and perhaps most far-reaching fruit fad to hit the American market. As one blogger proclaims, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s acai!”

A diminutive purplish berry, acai (pronounced “ah-sah-EE,”) is native to Brazil and tastes like an earthier version of a blackberry (or, as some enthusiasts claim, like a chocolate-covered blueberry). It is most commonly consumed as juice or in a smoothie, but that’s only the beginning. Acai-based products are now found at corner stores as well as high-end grocers, on the shelves of both GNC and Sephora, and in concentrated, blended, encapsulated and powdered form. But why limit yourself to eating the berry when you can buy acai shampoo, too? And for true devotees, there are even acai-seed necklaces. Today’s acai market is worth $15 million, up from under $500,000 in 2004, according to the Better Business Bureau.

The hype stems from aggressive marketing and the berry’s main claim to fame: It has a high concentration of antioxidants, substances found in food that help prevent damage to a body’s cells. That fact has generated not only a host of new products, but also nearly as many claims as to the berry’s supposed health benefits. It has been hailed as both a weight-loss wonder and anti-aging breakthrough, not to mention cancer cure, colon unclogger, skin firmer, and even libido lifter. In January, the Better Business Bureau stepped in and issued a warning to consumers about online scams involving acai. It is the latest chapter in a drama set off by one unassuming little berry.

Long hidden in the South American rainforest, acai was brought to the United States in 2000 by brothers Ryan and Jeremy Black. They first encountered the berry in the form of an “acai bowl”—a mix of fruit pulp and granola that is a favored pick-me-up for Brazilian surfers. Soon, the brothers formed Sambazon, now the country’s largest retailer of acai. Their 10.5 ounce bottles of juice sell for under $5, even as competitors fetch as much as $20 for the same amount.

The berry got a major boost in early 2008 when cosmetics magnate Dr. Nicholas Perricone named acai as his No. 1 superfood on Oprah Winfrey’s Web site. Since then, a veritable rainforest of sites has cropped up, some of which “make wallets thin and consumers angry,” according to the Better Business Bureau.

Its recent warning came in the wake of thousands of complaints from consumers across the country who had been hooked by weight-loss plans featuring acai. Many of the plans offered supposedly no-risk trials, but proved difficult or impossible to cancel, with some consumers going as far as suspending their credit cards to avoid being billed.

The scams have left legitimate acai companies with the task of defending their berry. Kaia Lai, communications manager for Sambazon, said that her company does not attribute any fat-burning ability to acai, and that the true value of the fruit should not be diminished by online hucksters.

“We stand behind its nutrients,” Lai added. “It is high in anthocyanins,” a class of antioxidants, “and it also has fiber, protein, and omega fatty acids. What we do suggest is that if you want a nutrient-rich food as part of your diet, acai is a good choice.”

Sambazon’s Web site features a bar graph that shows the acai berry outpacing the strawberry, the blueberry and even its superfruit forebear, the pomegranate, in antioxidant content. But that, too, is a claim that should be taken in the proper context, according to Jonny Bowden, a nutrition expert and author of “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.”

“Yes, it’s very high in antioxidants, but that doesn’t necessarily make it more important than other fruits,” he said.

One recent study of acai’s properties offered an eye-catching result, but also confirmed Bowden’s assessment. In 2006, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reported that acai extracts set off a self-destruct response in up to 86 percent of leukemia cells in a test tube. Researchers noted, however, that similar results have been recorded for grapes, guavas and mangoes, and that test-tube findings do not necessarily apply to the human body.

According to Bowden, methods used to measure a food’s antioxidant capacity can also produce misleading results. “Did they test 50 grams of the substance, 10 grams of the substance, or 5 grams of the substance?” he asked. “Maybe blueberries were measured with a 10-gram portion and they measured their stuff with 100 grams. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.” Or acai berries and oranges.

Lai, Sambazon’s representative, agreed that antioxidant measurements are sometimes skewed but expressed confidence in the work of Brunswick Laboratories, which specializes in antioxidant science and is the source of Sambazon’s data. Lai said she did not know the details of Brunswick’s procedures.

Even if acai is highest in antioxidants, or at least a certain type of antioxidant, that is a fact that Bowden said can get overplayed as well. “I don’t know if the incremental difference of more anthocyanins in one berry, and more vitamin A in another and more folic acid in a third—I don’t really know if it is ultimately going to make that much of a difference,” he explained. “I have no objection to acai, but there is no one magical thing in the absence of a wholly healthy lifestyle that is ultimately going to make that much of a difference—even though marketing says otherwise.”

Many consumers are saying otherwise as well. With demand soaring for everything acai, the uses of the fruit have gotten correspondingly more creative. The Borba cosmetic company offers “Age Defying Skin Balance Water,” and the acai in it “could,” according to its Web site, “ultimately lead to healthier, young-looking skin.” The site’s featured product is “Age Defying Advanced Recovery Crème,” with “acai” written prominently on the jar but conspicuously absent from the list of active ingredients.

There is also antioxidant beer with acai, lip gloss with “skinvigorating” acai, the Xocai line of foods containing acai and chocolate, and MonaVie, the acai distribution system, in which you can make a mint selling their stock of acai juice (in wine bottles, no less) to your friends and neighbors.

One person who might appreciate a bottle is Cassie Chen, a junior at Brigham Young University Hawaii and founder of the “Addicted to ACAI” Facebook group. “Acai really makes me feel refreshed, and honestly, I’m energized after I eat it,” she said. “I don’t feel tired and it helps me focus more.”

Having first discovered the berry two years ago, Chen has since eaten acai in one form or another—bowl, smoothie, or juice—three times a week, every week. She never guessed that her enthusiasm would be shared by so many. Her group, one of dozens dedicated to acai, now has more than 500 members.

“I made the group, just kind of wanting to spread the word about acai, and I had no idea it would get so huge,” she said. “I just thought it would be me and my friends. But one day, my parents said to me, ‘Hey, have you heard about this acai thing?’ Once I knew that they had heard about it,” Chen recalled, “I knew it was becoming a big thing.”

For Chen, weight loss claims and lab tests are beside the point. She simply enjoys her acai, and isn’t planning to kick the habit any time soon. But she’s also a college student on a budget, and pricey bottles of acai concentrate are out of the question. Instead, she buys 4-packs of frozen pulp at her local health food store for $7.50. And if her dorm room gets enough light, she might consider logging on to plant retailer acaifarms.com. What better way to save money than to have an acai tree of your very own.

E-mail: rbs2130@columbia.edu