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Acai Berry: Is This Berry a Superfood or Super Scam?

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Posted Tuesday, Jan. 13th, 2015

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It seems like everywhere you turn, there’s a new “superfood” on the market.

They often have exotic names, come from exotic places, and promise to solve every problem, from heart disease and cancer to wrinkles and weight loss.

But… how realistic are the claims?  When it comes to acai, the answer is… sort of.

Acai has been touted as one of the top 10 superfoods for anti-aging and has been linked to cell health, cholesterol, and the immune system… among other things.

So what is it about acai that’s creating so much buzz and is there any legitimacy behind those claims??

Getting to Know Acai…

This Brazilian palm fruit, pronounced ah-sigh-ee, (a bit smaller than a grape) is touted primarily for its antioxidant properties1.  It is particularly rich in anthocyanins, a class of flavonoids found in plant-based foods all over the world.

It also has a nice mix of polyphenols, which are regularly associated with reducing cancer and heart disease risk, as well as amino acids, fiber, and beta-sitosterol, a plant sterol that has been shown to help lower blood cholesterol levels.

Sounds good so far, right?

Sure.  But lots of fruits have similarly impressive resumes.  Many berries, leafy greens, and even teas have amazing antioxidant properties coupled with amazing phytonutrient compositions.

So the question remains: Does acai rise above them to all to claim superfood status?

Much to the chagrin of over-the-top-aggressive internet and multi-level marketers, the research doesn’t bear it out.

Scant Research = Questionable Claims…

On the antioxidant front, several studies have shown that acai does have antioxidant benefits.  But results are quite varied.

For example, one in vitro study found that acai had an extremely high superoxide scavenging capacity2, meaning that it was amazingly capable of neutralizing oxidation.  In fact, researchers said that acai’s scavenging abilities were far superior to “any fruit or vegetable tested to date.”

However, the same study also found that acai had some ability to reduce inflammation, a weak effect on improving arterial function, and no effect on cancer prevention.

One of the key things to point out about this study is that it was done on the berry itself.  But here in the U.S., the berry is rarely, if ever, consumed.  More often, acai is found in juice or pulp form.

Keeping this mind, a separate study looked at a variety of different antioxidant juices and beverages on the market3.  In addition to acai juice, researchers also studied:

  • Apple juice
  • Pomegranate juice
  • Black cherry juice
  • Blueberry juice
  • Cranberry juice
  • Concord grape juice
  • Orange juice
  • Pomegranate juice
  • Red wine
  • Iced tea drinks, black, white, and green

Not only did acai NOT top the list, it wasn’t even in the top half!

Pomegranate juice, red wine, grape juice, and blueberry juice were all found to have higher antioxidant potency, better ability to block oxidation of LDL cholesterol, and had more overall polyphenol content.

Acai fell in the lower half of the pack and was found comparable to cranberry juice and black cherry juice.

When it comes to actual health claims, acai falls even farther.  While there are a handful of cell studies and even fewer animal studies, we couldn’t find any viable human studies.

Of the cell and animal studies, there IS one that is the most interesting and holds a bit of promise… but just a bit.

Researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville studied the effects of acai’s polyphenols on human leukemia cells4.  They found that acai helped stop the growth of the cancer cells, while also leading to cell death—both great things when it comes to cancer cells.

As intriguing as this study is, there are several “but what abouts” to consider.

First, the entire berry wasn’t studied… not even the juice.  Researchers looked at extracted nutrients from the berry.

Second, the study was done in vitro, or on cells in a lab.  It would be interesting to see how acai would do in an animal or, even better, a human.

Survey Says…

So what does this all mean?  Basically it means that there simply isn’t much there when it comes to acai.

Yes, acai is high in antioxidants… but not enough to warrant its superstar status.  There are foods that are higher, some that are lower, and some that are equal.  It is average to possibly above average at best.

Now, that’s not to say it has no value.  You cannot understate the importance of antioxidants, and acai is a good one to include in your antioxidant tool belt.

The real message when it comes to acai is that you cannot (and should not) always believe the hype.  In some cases, like hoodia, it is just that… hype.

In the case of acai, it’s a case of over hype.

All the infomercials, online ads, and multi-level marketers took a good food source of antioxidants and tried to make it a cure-all.  Unfortunately, the science simply doesn’t support the hype.

References:

1Pacheco-Palencia LA et al.  Chemical composition, antioxidant properties, and thermal stability of a phytochemical enriched oil from Acai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.).  J Agric Food Chem.  2008 Jun 25;56(12):4631-6.

2Schauss, AG et al.  Antioxidant capacity and other bioactivities of the freeze-dried Amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart.  (acai).  J Agric Food Chem.  2006 Nov 1;54(22):8604-10.

3Seeram, NP et al.  Comparison of antioxidant potency of commonly consumed polyphenol-rich beverages in the United States.  J Agric Food Chem.  2008 Feb 27;56(4):1415-22.

4Del Pozo-Insfran, D et al.  Acai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) polyphenolics in their glycoside and aglycone forms induce apoptosis of HL-60 leukemia cells.  J Agric Food Chem.  2006 Feb 22;54(4):1222-9.

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Natural Health Sherpa, Internet Selling Services, Wilmington, NC