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Is the Acai Berry a Superfood or a Super Scam?

We can go to a farmer's market and buy locally grown strawberries in late spring, blueberries still warm from a summer sun at a farm stand in July, or apples picked at an orchard in the fall and enjoy the "magic" of eating locally grown foods, as well as benefiting from their antioxidant power.
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A juice bar/health food restaurant located along my dog walking route is always crowded with diners sitting at sidewalk tables and eating large mounds of a mud colored food with the consistency of chocolate pudding. The mud, upon closer inspection, is dark purple and served with chunks of banana and sprinkles of granola. The diners are usually wearing yoga pants, running shorts or biking gear, and are so fully engaged in eating their bowl of purple stuff that they are not even looking at their cell phones.

"Do you know what they are eating?" I asked my dog walking companion.

"It is Acai," she responded. "It comes from a berry that is found in Brazil," she said. "It is supposed to be superfood healthy."

"So that is how you say it," I responded. "I had seen a sign on the restaurant door promoting it, but did not realize it was pronounced ah-sigh-ee. What does it taste like?"

"Tart... not very sweet. I actually had some in Brazil. It's very refreshing. People eat it because it is advertised as a superfood. They say it is good for weight loss, decreasing inflammation, and preventing aging," she told me.

I was not tempted to try it, not liking gloppy foods, but I did wonder if Acai really was a health wonder food. Certainly the people eating it all looked exceptionally healthy, most were thin, and when I asked two guys, about 33, in their bike shorts and tank tops what was so special about the Acai, they responded, almost in unison, that it was a superfood.

"It is full of energy," said one. The other added that it was full of vitamins.

How could I have missed out on eating such a spectacularly nutritious food? I had seen some claims for the Acai berry headlined in the tabloid magazines for sale at the supermarket check-out counter, but discounted them.

"Berry from the South American rainforest cures diabetes, heart disease, obesity!" the headlines blared.

"Another nutrition scam," I thought, and forgot about it. But now I was curious to know what was so special about the Acai berry. According to Wikipedia, a powder made from the purified pulp and skin of the berry contains mostly high-fiber carbohydrate, with low-sugar content. The protein content is small, only 8 grams in l00 grams of powder, about the same as in a glass of milk. The fat content was compromised of unsaturated fatty acids. Unlike other berries, its vitamin and mineral content is minimal.

Continuing my investigative nutrition a little further, I asked one of restaurant employees why Acai was so special. "Oh, it's full of antioxidants," she responded. "It has more than any other food."

So apparently the Acai berry is special because of its extraordinary antioxidant content.

Sometime in the l990s, people who were not biological chemists (that is, the rest of us...) started to hear about something called antioxidants. Antioxidants are important because they destroy bad substances in our body called free radicals. Free radicals alter the structure of molecules by removing electrons, thereby weakening membranes and making them more vulnerable to destruction. They can damage artery walls, allowing cholesterol to be deposited which then form artery blocking plaques, they potentiate cataracts and age related macular degeneration, and may be involved in certain types of cancer. It had been known for some time that vitamins like beta-carotene (the plant form of vitamin A) and vitamin E have antioxidant power.

Studies involving thousands of people over many years were undertaken to see if supplementing the diet with large doses of these vitamins might decrease heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. Unfortunately most of the results were inconclusive, negative (no effect) or dangerous. In one study, supplementing smokers with large amounts of beta carotene increased risk of lung cancer.

But the lack of positive results did not stop food and supplement companies from promoting the antioxidant content of whatever edibles they were selling. Magazines, newspaper articles, even media personalities offered lists foods that should be eaten because they contain large quantities of antioxidants. No longer were foods simply "Good for You." They were antioxidant missiles aimed at those nasty free radicals that, if not thwarted, would cause you to degenerate into a crumbling mass of membranes by the time you were sixty.

So this brings us back to the purple glop. How did the Acai berry become anointed as the queen of antioxidants? The berry contains several chemicals that act as antioxidants, and the strength of their chemical reactions to counteract free radicals has been measured, mostly in test tubes but in a small number of animal and human studies as well. (J. Agric. Food Chem.2006,54,8604−8610 ; J. Agric. Food Chem., 2008, 56 (18), pp 8326-8333).

So yes, this Amazon rain forest berry does have potent antioxidant qualities. But one does not have to go to Brazil, or even the sidewalk restaurant in my neighborhood to eat foods with antioxidant power. Any local supermarket contains dozens of foods with antioxidant properties: kidney beans, pinto beans, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, apples, prunes, plums, pomegranates, artichokes, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, avocados, beets, spinach, and many spices as well. (The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 9th edition, June 2004). There is little evidence that Acai contains substantially more antioxidants than a bowl of blueberries. And I suspect that the blueberries will cost considerably less than the $9.00 charged in my neighborhood for a small bowl of Acai pudding.

The downside of eating ordinary fruits and vegetables is that they are not associated with the astonishing, although totally unproven, claims made for Acai... such as reversing diabetes, weight loss, and increasing sexual virility. (Funny the two guys in bike shorts never mentioned this.) No one eats an ordinary apple, or a bowl of blueberries with the expectation of turning into a nutritional version of superman. But it is nice to know that it is not necessary to eat a berry imported from Brazil and pulverized into a powder to obtain antioxidants. We can go to a farmer's market and buy locally grown strawberries in late spring, blueberries still warm from a summer sun at a farm stand in July, or apples picked at an orchard in the fall and enjoy the "magic" of eating locally grown foods, as well as benefiting from their antioxidant power.