In the nutraceutical or nutritional supplements market, there is never a shortage of bandwagons. One of the loudest and largest has formed behind açaí berries.
Harvested from a Brazilian palm, açaí (ah-SAH-ee) berries are a dietary staple in Brazil and have also been used medicinally by Amazonian tribes. Açaí juice was introduced in the U.S. in 2001, and the export of açaí from Brazil has grown dramatically. Dozens of food and drink products containing açaí are on the market.
As a juice, pulp, powder or capsule, it is marketed as a magic path to weight loss, a wrinkle remover, a way to cleanse the body of "toxins" and just a plain old miracle cure. It is often combined with other ingredients, such as glucosamine, so that the claims for benefits multiply exponentially. Offers for açaí have flooded the nation’s email boxes. On the Internet, you’ll find a bouquet of endorsements from such celebrities as Oprah, Dr. Oz, Nicholas Perricone (the TV "skin doctor") and Rachael Ray (the TV chef), plus statements by these same celebrities denying any such endorsement, or at least any endorsement of a particular brand—except that Dr. Perricone sells a brand of his own. You will also find a war of words among makers of açaí products, each one claiming safety and effectiveness for its particular formulation, and warning of scams by others.
Since açaí came on the market there have been a few studies pointing to potential benefits, which marketers often mention. But most of the studies have been done in test tubes or animals, the results of which may not apply to humans. And the few small studies in people have not compared açaí to a placebo or other fruits. Like many other fruits, açaí berries are high in antioxidants (molecules that quell cell-damaging free radicals) and other interesting compounds. (The term "antioxidant", unfortunately, has become a sales tool.) The Natural Standard, which evaluates research on alternative treatments, gives açaí only a B grade for its antioxidant levels.
There is no convincing evidence from studies in humans to support the use of açaí for any health-related purpose, according the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health). In addition, there is "little reliable information about the safety of açaí as a supplement," it said.
Consumer protection groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) have come out against açaí marketers. "If Bernard Madoff were in the food business," said a CSPI nutritionist, "he’d be offering ‘free’ trials of açaí-based weight-loss products."
Online ads regularly promise a free trial, saying that all you have to pay is shipping and handling. The catch is that you must supply your credit card number, and you’ll automatically be signed up for $50 monthly shipments that likely will prove hard to cancel.
We urge you not to give your credit card number to anybody selling açaí products. Hundreds of complaints have been registered, and you may never get your money back. Beware of websites warning you of açaí scams—far from helping you get your money back, most turn out to be just sales pitches for more açaí.