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Image: Acai berries
Andre Penner  /  AP file
Virtually unknown outside a remote corner of Latin America's largest nation until 15 years ago, açai is now widely found in juice and smoothies and is touted as a powerful antioxidant.
By
updated 11/15/2009 12:45:18 PM ET 2009-11-15T17:45:18

They arrive early and join a line that stretches out like a Sunday morning communion queue: flip-flopped tourists in madras-print vestments, joggers ashine from their early-morning canters, locals burning off the fog of a few too many.

One after another, they belly up to the counter at the Rum Jungle Cafe in San Diego and plunk down $4.50 for an açai (ah-sigh-EE) smoothie or $6.50 for the house special: a bowl of chilled, mushy, raw açai topped with a handful of the purple berries, some granola and banana, and a drizzle of honey.

Why açai? I ask Bobby Hawke, a lean, tanned 27-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep with a sun-streaked brush of stylishly mussed hair. He thinks for a moment, glances at his girlfriend, and shrugs. "From what I hear, it's one of the best antioxidants you can buy." Hawke pauses, and then starts to grin. "I guess I don't really know all that much about it, other than it's refreshing, it's good for you, and it tastes good."

Jay Swain, a 22-year-old Web developer, says a buddy turned him on to açai as a hangover cure. Beyond that, he's heard something about healthy properties — antioxidants, too — though he's not sure where. Oprah maybe. Oh, wait. "I think they gave me the lowdown when I came by and asked what it was," he says. "They told me it's good for you," he says. Like Hawke, he smiles, a little uncertainly.

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"It's a berry from the Amazon," Swain finally adds. "It's kind of like a gem; you have this fruit imported from a different country, it only grows on the Amazon river. It's special."

Last year, 53 new food and drink products containing the Brazilian berries with the funny name were introduced in the United States. Total sales of all things açai surged to $104 million — more than double the 2007 figure, according to the market analysis firm Spins. Not surprisingly, some of the beverage world's big players took notice: Pepsi-owned Naked Juice also sells açai blends, and Jamba Juice offers an açai concoction. But by far the top purveyor of the newest darling of the superfruit juice market is Sambazon, a company co-founded by Ryan Black.

Around the end of 1999, Black traveled to Brazil with his girlfriend and buddy Ed Nichols to celebrate the new millennium. The three were there to surf, but they also took some time to bum around and sample the local culture. That's when Black happened upon açai — and the long lines of people waiting to buy it.

"There was one little açai bar where we went every day for açai bowls," he recalls, "and I was, like, 'How many of these do you sell a day?' And the guy's, like, 'I don't know, 300?' "

The berry was purple. Black saw green.

Within a decade, açai was a star and Sambazon's annual sales had grown to a reported $25 million. Together, Ryan, his brother, Jeremy, and Nichols went from maneuvering açai into small juice bars in Southern California to claiming shelf space in 15,000 stores nationwide, including health-food behemoth Whole Foods. In the process they helped launch a phenomenon rivaling POM Wonderful, the pomegranate potion that became a sensation on the strength of claims that its arsenal of antioxidants was more powerful than that of blueberry juice and red wine. Sambazon, it turned out, could make a similar claim, and more: Its açai juice also contained omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and even some protein.

In some ways, the whole thing seemed like a fluke, a stroke of luck borne of a surfer dude's chance trip and a berry that happened to be an honest-to-God health marvel.

In truth, what we're guzzling by the gallon is masterful marketing. Rather than being a "global wonderberry," açai might better be described as an overhyped jungle juice that's no better for your health than the average orange. Instead of the happy tale of the little berry that could, the açai phenomenon is really just the latest example of how time and time again we turn off our brains and open our wallets when we're presented with a bottle of exotic "superfruit" juice that's been packaged as some kind of shortcut to immortality.

In other words, we've been had.

Açai selling points
There's little doubt that açai offers nutritional benefits, as almost every fruit does. What is in question is its rep as a purple powerhouse that makes all other produce look like just so many still-life props.

First, the fats. One of the juice's unique selling points is that açai contains omega-3s, the fatty acids found in cold-water fish that may help reduce your risk of heart disease. And while it's true that there are few fruits with omega-3s hiding inside them, the amount in açai is hardly worth bragging about. You'd need to down almost 2 1/2 gallons of Sambazon açai juice to equal the amount of omega-3s in just one 3-ounce serving of salmon.

We approached Jeremy Black with our math. "Omega-3s are less than 1 percent of the fats found in açai," he acknowledges. "I don't think you'll find any reputable açai company that promotes a high concentration. The promotion is about omegas in general." That is, that açai contains a full complement of fatty acids, including omega-6s and omega-9s. The latter, in fact, is the real wonder of açai, says Sambazon co-founder Nichols. "It's quite rare to find omega-9 fatty acids in the fruits typically used in smoothies and other antioxidant beverages," he says.

So let's consider the omega-9s, a.k.a. oleic acid. They give açai a similar fatty-acid ratio to that found in heart-healthy olive oil, a fact Sambazon points out on its Web site. The good news: açai juice has more oleic acid than it has omega-3s. The bad news: That amount is almost invisible. It takes roughly six 8-ounce servings of Sambazon açai juice to net the same oleic acid content found in a single tablespoon of olive oil.

"We reference the ratio of olive oil so that consumers have an understanding of the healthy fat complex of the fruit," explains Black.

Another supposed açai advantage is its fiber: There's 1 gram in 8 ounces of Sambazon açai juice. Or to look at it another way, you can either drink a quart of juice, or eat a slice of 100 percent whole-wheat bread. The juice will set you back 600 calories, versus 100 for the bread.

Black concedes the point. "It would be pretty over the top if you could come in and say, 'this fruit juice has everything you need,' " he says. "It's not like we're saying 'don't eat bread.' " What they are saying, he insists, is that it's very unusual for a juice to contain a "decent quantity" of fiber plus these fats. "It's the synergy of all this stuff together that makes açai special."

You can bet the phrase "decent quantity" has never appeared in any Sambazon marketing. Or on the Web site of MonaVie, a company that uses multilevel marketing to sell its $40-a-bottle blend of açai and 18 other fruits, claiming to be one of the world's fastest-growing private companies.

"Marketers understand the power of buzzwords and they're doing everything they can to leverage them," says Peter Ditto, Ph. D., a psychology professor at the University of California at Irvine, who examines the role of motivation and emotion in decision making. "Whether there's any conclusive science to back them up almost becomes irrelevant."

Antioxidant effects
Nowhere is the power of the nutrition buzzword more obvious than with the term "antioxidant." Though there's still debate over exactly how effective antioxidants are at preventing disease, researchers generally believe them to be beneficial because they gobble free radicals — cell-damaging molecules thought to play a role in aging and disease. Within the marketing world, however, antioxidants have an even greater impact: They move product.

Here's how it works: If a company wants to one-up a competitor's superjuice in the antioxidant arena, all it needs to do is claim that its fruit potion has a higher ORAC score. This "mine is bigger than yours" acronym stands for "oxygen radical absorbance capacity." It's the result of a laboratory measure of how well a test-tube sample of a particular food, beverage, or supplement neutralizes free radicals. Fresh blueberries, for instance, have 6,552 ORAC points per 100 grams, while Red Delicious apples have 4,275 ORAC points per 100 grams, according to 2007 USDA data.

Now let's look at açai. The USDA has yet to test the berry, but many Web sites that tout its antioxidant punch cite an ORAC score of 50,000, nearly 8 times that of blueberries. On the surface, the average person would see this as a KO, with açai emerging as the heavyweight among healthful fruits. Look closer, however, and it seems this fight may have been rigged.

First of all, that jaw-dropping 50,000 is for 100 grams of powdered açai extract, while the ORAC score of blueberries was calculated using fresh berries. That means a highly concentrated form of açai was pitted against a more diluted (but also more real-world-representative) form of blueberries.

"It's confusing and misleading to compare powder to single fruit pulp," says Jeremy Black, who insists Sambazon is scrupulous in its testing and in how the results are represented. "We try to be real conservative and not overstate our claims."

Second, açai's number was derived from a single test conducted in 2007 by Brunswick Laboratories, a private lab, and the test was paid for by Sambazon. Black is adamant that the sample Sambazon submitted was typical of what you'd find in its products.

But the dirty secret of ORAC testing is that with less principled companies, there's no guarantee. They could easily submit a high-quality sample of the ripest, freshest fruit for testing and then trumpet the resulting high ORAC score knowing that the product it sold would probably be far less potent. Manufacturers can also test their product dozens and even hundreds of times, simply cherry-picking the highest ORAC score and concealing the less favorable results.

Nichols agrees that ORAC comparisons are folly. "We're trying not to perpetuate this paradigm," he says. He calls claims on Sambazon's Web site that its açai has 10 times the antioxidants of red wine "one of the rare instances in which we make ORAC comparisons."

Superfruit?
Another açai beverage company, Bossa Nova, seems to have no such reservations. The company's "original" açai juice shows ORAC comparisons right on the bottle. The little plastic container, in fact, includes a handy ORAC bar chart. A quick glance at the purple bars reveals that açai has five times the antioxidant power of blueberries, more than six times that of oranges, and almost 60 percent more than that of pomegranates. And that's impressive, until you read more closely and discover that the "antioxidant comparison" was made using fresh fruit, not the juice. In other words, the numbers bear very little relation to what's in the bottle.

The kicker, though, is that even if the numbers are correct — if açai scores higher in antioxidants than any food on the planet — there's no evidence that it's better than "regular" fruits, says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph. D., director of the USDA antioxidants research laboratory at Tufts University. "I don't want to be too snide here — these kinds of tests are of some use — but they don't reflect what happens in the body."

This raises another critical point that's lost in the ORAC wars: There isn't just one type of antioxidant. Instead, a variety of antioxidants are found in different levels in different fruits, each one potentially effective against a specific chronic malady. Research suggests, for instance, that anthocyanins (one of the primary antioxidants found in açai) may confer some protection from diabetes and cancer. A 2006 University of Florida study bolstered the notion, finding that açai cut the production of cultured leukemia cells by up to 86 percent. (The result was seen in a test tube and not a human being.) Antioxidants from carotenoids (found in yellow and orange fruits), on the other hand, may be more effective at reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The upshot, say experts, is that no one fruit or berry, no matter what its ORAC score, fires an antioxidant silver bullet. "What I tell people is that you need to eat all these types of compounds, in all different colors," says Navindra P. Seeram, Ph. D., who studies the bioactivity of berries and other plants at the University of Rhode Island.

"Açai berries are wonderful, tasty, delightful fruit," says Blumberg, "but I have never seen any report demonstrating that they are any better than apples and oranges and cranberries and blueberries and so on. Where is the evidence?"

Given the undertow of controversy pulling on açai, it might seem surprising that we're so willing to brave the current for more. But for psychologist Ditto, it's an all-too-familiar phenomenon among American consumers.

"There's this long history of 'just drink this and all your problems will be solved,' " he says. "That's why these superfruit berries like açai are so successful. They're sort of exotic, and they have the trappings of something that sounds good for you. It's easy. It's painless. So people tend to be kind of gullible — 'Sure, I'll give that a try.' And they'll spend a lot of money for it."

Consider the very concept of the superfruit. Seven years ago, no such thing existed. Then came the stunning success of POM Wonderful, and the revelation that enormous profits could be squeezed from exotic fruits such as mangosteen, goji berries, and noni berries.

Voila. The superfruit — a name that calls heroic feats to mind — was born. The media ate it up. Scientists balked. ("I hate the word 'superfruit,' " says Blumberg. "It suggests that there are somehow meek, mild-mannered fruits that you shouldn't bother to eat.") The term entered the lexicon as a new category of natural, healthy food. Of course, marketers knew the deal: "Superfruits are the product of a strategy, not something you find growing on a tree," reads a blurb for the book "Successful Superfruit Strategy: How to Build a Superfruit Business." "To consumers they mean health, taste, and convenience, and to food companies they mean big business."

Lure of the exotic
Not just any berry will do, however. In addition to having at least the appearance of being healthy, a winner has to be novel, says Karl Crawford, one of the book's authors and a business manager at Plant & Food Research, a food science company based in New Zealand.

In other words, we're enticed by the exotic. So it's no coincidence that goji comes from China, that noni comes from Tahiti, and that the mangosteen hails from the tropical evergreen trees of southeast Asia and Indonesia. Or that the pomegranate is native to Iran and flourishes in Afghanistan.

Açai comes from the Amazon rain forest, where berries cluster atop tall, swaying palms known to locals as trees of life. That those trees are in Brazil not only lends mystique, but taps into a well of positive associations.

"What do you think of when you think of Brazil?" says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a Cornell University professor who specializes in food psychology. "You think of the girl from Ipanema, a sort of mystical culture where the people know health secrets we don't. If açai came from Omaha, it wouldn't have the same effect."

Meanwhile, another more important, more primal message is being conveyed by companies such as Sambazon and Amazon Thunder: that they aren't slick, faceless corporations mining millions on the backs of jungle dwellers, but rather eco-friendly co-ops committed to a simpler time and a woven-basket mindset. Amazon Thunder, for example, boasts that it produces "the purest, ethically and sustainably, harvested kosher and organic açai berry nutraceuticals on the planet." With Sambazon, even the name — short for Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon — conjures images of environmental care and concern.

"It's really brilliant — the natural colors, the rain forest green," says Ditto about the marketing strategies. "They're adopting a lot of environmental language that reinforces the image of a thing that seems so easy and natural. They show a basket of berries as opposed to some sort of big machine. It portrays an ancient wisdom, like that of an Incan or Mayan healer."

It's true that Sambazon has won praise for its fair-trade practices by paying Brazilian harvesters a decent wage. And in 2006, the U.S. State Department lauded the company for its efforts to harvest açai according to organic guidelines that preserve the rain forest. But the demand created by Ryan Black's "discovery" of the fruit has not been without worrisome consequences. For one thing, environmentalists are concerned that huge swaths of varied vegetation are being replaced by a single cash crop.

And as more palms are planted — and planted more densely — there are also concerns that opportunistic growers will swallow up too much land and resort to pesticides and fertilizers instead of sustainable practices.

Then there's the hidden human toll. Though the lives of poor people directly connected with harvesting açai have improved, other poverty-stricken residents who once counted on the fruit as an affordable, nutrient-rich staple can no longer afford it.

"The poor have to buy rice and beans and meat," says Felix Franca, Ph.D., U.S. coordinator for Embrapa Labex-U.S.A., part of the Brazilian Organization for Agricultural Research. "The price of açai during the peak season is now about the same as the price of pork or chicken. If you can get 2 pounds of meat for the same price as 2 pounds of açai, I think they are going to buy the meat."

No amount of marketing will change that.

The lunch rush is over at Rum Jungle Cafe. Hawke and his girlfriend finish their açai smoothies and drift out into the brightening afternoon. The morning haze is burning off , bestowing on the faithful a benediction: the sort of muggy, sticky, sunny warmth reminiscent of another place, an exotic place — a jungle clearing, perhaps. Hawke will be back, he says. For sure.

"I always come, and I always order the same thing. What can I say?"

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

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