Açai berry: investigating the Amazonian wonder fruit

If you have exposed yourself to the media lately, you have most likely come across some claims of what açai berry will do for you. Perhaps you have wondered: “What’s the deal with this açai berry?” I have. Working in the health food industry exposed me to this “wonder berry” many years ago.

This is what I knew about the berry: It is very high in antioxidants, promotes overall health, it has travelled a long distance to get to us, it is expensive, and it tastes pretty good when blended with other juices. In most health food stores you will find açai berry products next to gogi berry, mangosteen, and seabuckthorn products, all with similar claims about their high-antioxidant, health-promoting benefits. So why is it that açai berry has exploded in the popular media? To answer this question, I did a little research into the claims the media are making about the berry and what the scientific community has to say. During this research I found that there is a whole lot more to the açai berry than its nutritional benefits.

Dyanamic Health Laboratories Inc. produces an açai juice blend that I have tried (it tastes like Fruit Roll-Ups). They claim that their juice is anti-aging, boosts energy levels, improves general metabolism, promotes weight loss, strengthens the immune system, is beneficial as a dietary supplement, and can alleviate cell damage caused by free radical molecules. Açai Canada Inc. claims that açai has the “highest antioxidant property” of any fruit on Earth, a fatty acid ratio resembling olive oil and the same protein profile as an egg. However, these statements have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada.

My scientific literature search did not provide as much information on the benefits of açai berry as I had hoped. This could reflect the fact that there are not many studies in English on this subject, as most are from Latin America. However, my research concluded that açai does have a high nutritional value and provides antioxidant effects which may inhibit cancer cell growth, but further studies are needed to demonstrate its full benefits.

What I found most interesting in my açai berry inquisition was not what I learned about its nutritional benefits but what I learned about the marketing schemes behind it. For example, MonaVie makes an açai juice blend and uses network marketing to sell its juice. Instead of selling their product in stores they encourage everyday people to become independent distributors. You start out simply selling juice to your friends, but your goal is to create a huge pyramid of people under you, all of whom are persuasive juice distributors. As your sales grow, your MonaVie rank increases and you receive rewards. For example, according to the MonaVie website, once your pyramid of distributors earns $150,000 in a week you obtain Black Diamond status, where you are compensated with a Mercedes car. Once your pyramid makes $1,800,000 in a week you are rewarded with, among other prizes, a $3 million cash bonus and a “stratospheric adventure,” where MonaVie will “take you out of this world.” According to The Fraud Files blog, in order to qualify for commissions, distributors are forced to buy at least four bottles of the overpriced juice every month, which they must sell or they must eat the cost. While I want to believe that the people who pick the berries are millionaires too, I am having a hard time doing so. MonaVie is just one of many of this type of marketing scheme related to açai juice.

The fact that this business is selling juice makes me think that it is more of a get-rich cult than a legitimate juice business. As far as all the unofficial health claims about açai go, they are based on truth, but written with the intention of getting your money rather that getting you healthy. Someone could just as easily put a similar claim on running shoes, saying that they lead to weight loss. The persuasive videos that profile some of MonaVie’s Black Diamond distributors are designed to sell a rich lifestyle, rather than a healthy lifestyle.

After all my research, the question still remains: Why açai? Why is this berry, among all other healthy, antioxidant-providing foods, creating such a craze? We could blame Oprah. She talked about the benefits of açai on one of her shows, and we all know if Oprah likes it, it will sell. But to me it remains a bit of a mystery. My research has shown me that it is in fact a very nutritious food, but I have yet to be convinced that spending a lot of money on a fruit that has to be transported from Central and South America is worth it. Blueberries are also extremely healthy and high in antioxidants and you can pick them locally. When you consider the amount of energy consumed to bring these exotic berries to kitchens in Winnipeg, do the personal health benefits outweigh the social and environmental costs accrued? “Why açai?” indeed.