A small purple berry eaten for centuries by indigenous Brazilians is at the center of alleged scams, questionable marketing practices, and rancorous debates between believers and skeptics who trade cutting personal barbs in cyber space.
Acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) is a miracle maker to its followers and nothing but hype to its detractors. Harvested from atop sixty-foot high palm trees in the Amazon, the berry is sold to induce weight loss, enhance memory, boost energy, rejuvenate skin, cure cancer and diabetes, and increase sex drive. It also has “anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-mutagenic properties,” according to acai.org, which links to a Web site selling a Kosher-certified acai puree.
In fact, do an online search of any type of ailment or health issue—nail fungus, for instance—and there’s a good chance that the wonder berry is hailed as a way to fix, prevent, or at least alleviate the problem.
Real Profits, False Promises
Scientific evidence of acai’s alleged benefits is lacking, but that has not stopped consumers from buying. The berry is freeze-dried after it’s picked to prevent spoilage and used in a bevy of powdered dietary supplements, pills, smoothies and juices, and added to hair and skin care products.
Last year, products with acai as the main ingredient sold to the tune of $106 million, according to the market researcher, Spins. Many more products that contain acai—just not as the primary ingredient—are also reaping profits. MonaVie, a company that sells a juice with acai and “fourteen other body-beneficial fruits,” has stated earnings of $1 billion since its founding in 2005. (Verifying the claim is difficult because private companies are not required to release their financial data.)
Acai is generally considered healthful, but there is no scientific evidence demonstrating that it’s a cure-all, worth the approximately $40 that MonaVie charges for a wine-sized bottle of syrupy juice.
Acai is high in antioxidants—substances that may counteract the damaging effects of unstable molecules on the body’s cells. A recent study of twelve volunteers demonstrated that our bodies do absorb the antioxidants in acai, at least in the short-term. But there’s no proof that it spurs weight loss—one of its primary selling points—let alone cures cancer. And almost all fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans contain antioxidants; some of the highest amounts are found in common foods like kidney beans, red beans, blueberries, and apples.
A Celebrity Berry
Acai producers and distributors marketing tactics have irked consumers and the Federal Drug Administration. The FDA warned acai juice producer MonaVie last summer that it was making medical claims that would classify it as a drug without the required scientific data to demonstrate that it is “safe and effective.” Since then, the FDA has said it is satisfied with MonaVie’s response.
Acai sells in part because of dubious marketing practices. Advertisements often use the names and photos of Rachel Ray and Oprah Winfrey to imply, and sometimes state explicitly, that the women use acai products. Both celebrities have featured acai on their programs or Web sites, but neither has promoted acai products. Consumers who say they were duped by the use of Oprah’s name have filed complaints with the office of the Attorney General of Illinois, which is investigating whether any companies attempted to intentionally deceive consumers. Oprah and Rachel Ray have posted statements on their Web site saying they are not associated with the products. Still, advertisements that claim acai is Oprah’s “weight loss secret” plaster the Internet.
The Better Business Bureau has received thousands of complaints about acai scams. Acai distributers have riled costumers who have tried their online “risk-free trials” only to find that when the trial ended, if they didn’t cancel, they would be billed for and continue to receive shipments each month. Some customers said that even after canceling, they continued to be charged. As a result of ordering from an acai company, an ABC reporter was billed for a subscription to a fitness Web site that she had never agreed to join.
Old Berry, New Spin
Acai may have never reached the United States if it weren’t for two surfers who learned of the berry on trip to Brazil in 1999. Ryan Black and Ed Nichols decided to mix the berry pulp with Guyana syrup, bottle it, and sell it back home. With the help of Ryan’s brother, they started their own company, Sambazon, which now sells twenty acai products throughout the country.
Despite its origins, Acai is still relatively new to most Brazilians. Eaten by indigenous people in the Amazon for centuries, it didn’t become a part of the urban Brazilian’s diet until recently. Restaurants and cafes serve acai as a frozen slush with granola and sliced banana. That Brazilians are known for their svelte physiques and good looks has only brandished the berry’s credentials and made it easier to market.
Even with the dearth of scientific evidence and the reports of consumer complaints, the acai devotees seem to multiply. Questioning the berry’s efficacy incites a torrent of criticism by its followers and the marketing of acai products is increasingly bold. Purplehorror.com is a Web site supposedly dedicated to slamming acai products, particularly MonaVie. Yet, it is studded with advertisements for acai products including MonaVie and many of bloggers passionately extol various acai concoctions.
Perhaps the acai phenomena can be best demonstrated in the personal attacks between zealous proselytizers, some of who sell acai, and the equally ardent non-believers.
On Purplehorror, where anyone can comment on the ongoing blog, “BJ” berated critics of acai with an uncanny zeal, describing them as “people with limited mental capabilities, and a total lack of belief in themselves” and “weak.” In contrast, he refers to “those who are achieving their goals with MonaVie in order to attain their dreams,” as strong.
It makes you wonder if the fervor surrounding acai is really about a berry. After all, for those that have sunk large sums of money in the products, faith in the berry may be all they’ve got.