Pomegranate, açaí, mangosteen, noni and goji berry are so yesteryear. Here are four of the latest “superfruits” being loudly promoted as super sources of antioxidants. If you believe what marketers say, consuming them as foods or in supplements will prevent or cure everything from heart disease, hypertension, cancer and diabetes to emphysema, arthritis, depression, skin problems, osteoporosis and hemorrhoids. Here’s what we think.
Baobab (Adansonia digitata)
The dried pulp from the fruit of this West African tree is sold as a dietary supplement (in powders and capsules) and is being added to some energy bars, granolas, juices and candy chews. According to a paper published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition in 2009, the pulp is especially rich in vitamin C (about 45 to 145 milligrams per ounce; the recommended Daily Value is 60 milligrams) and other antioxidants. Baobab is also high in soluble fiber, potassium and other minerals and is a surprising source of calcium. The tree’s fruit, leaves and seeds are traditionally used to treat malaria, fever, cough, diarrhea, asthma, allergies and inflammation. But aside from a study in a Senegalese journal in 1997 on the use of baobab for diarrhea in infants, there are no published studies in people.
Camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia)
From bushes native to the Amazon rainforest, these tart red berries are extraordinarily high in vitamin C—with 500 to 860 milligrams per ounce (far more than anyone needs). The berries are also rich in anthocyanins, quercetin and other antioxidants. In a small study published in the Journal of Cardiology in 2008, smokers who drank the juice for a week had significant decreases in markers of inflammation and oxidative stress associated with cardiovascular disease, compared to people who took only vitamin C, suggesting that something else in camu-camu besides its vitamin C was responsible. But this hardly means that camu-camu will actually prevent or treat heart disease. And, of course, it would be far better to just stop smoking.
Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
These deep purple berries, shown in the photo above, are from shrubs that grow in the eastern U.S. and Canada. The tart fruit is used in jams and juices and also in wine production. The berries are high in anthocyanins, quercetin, chlorogenic acid and other antioxidants. Native Americans have long consumed them as a remedy for colds, among other uses. A 2007 Polish study found improvements in cholesterol and blood pressure in men who consumed chokeberry juice for six weeks. But a 2010 review in Phytotherapy Research concluded that while chokeberry is promising, the quality of the research has been poor and more rigorous studies are needed before it can be recommended.
Maqui berry (Aristotelia chilensis)
Also known as Chilean wineberries, these sweet purple berries are particularly rich in antioxidant compounds called delphinidins, which give them their color. They are made into jams and juices and also sold in capsules and extracts. The Mapuche Indians of Chile have traditionally used maqui to increase stamina and treat diarrhea, fever, kidney pain, sore throats and other ailments. But there are no clinical studies on the health benefits in people.
Super marketing of superfruits
In those parts of the world where these fruits grow, indigenous people often revere them as important sources of food and folk medicine. We don’t want to outright dismiss their traditional uses, but there are no published studies in people to back most of the claims made for commercial products—and those studies that have been done were poorly designed and preliminary at best. Despite the high antioxidant levels and other interesting properties of these fruits, there’s no evidence that they are more healthful than more common ones like blueberries, cranberries, black currants and strawberries—or, for that matter than other “superfruits” like goji berry and pomegranates. They may sound more exotic, but there’s nothing magical about them.
Still, it’s always good to consume a variety of fruits, especially those that are brightly colored, as this indicates high levels of anthocyanins, carotenoids and other pigments that have high antioxidant activity. So if you like the way these fruits taste—and don’t mind paying a premium price—you can consume them for a change of pace. But no juice, even in concentrated form, is worth $1 an ounce or more, as some products cost (some come as less-expensive powdered mixes). What’s more, the juices or extracts are often mixed with cheaper fruit juices.
We don’t recommend the supplements: Their benefits are unproven, their risks are largely unknown and there’s minimal oversight to ensure that the products are of good quality. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently cracked down on bogus weight-loss claims made for açaí supplements and should similarly pursue companies making unsubstantiated claims for these other “superfruits.”