Driven by remarkable health claims and aggressive marketing, acai berry products sales have soared from $435,000 in the 52 weeks prior to October 2003 to $13,800,000 annual sales just two years later (1). Touted as one of the most potent anti-inflammatory foods available (2) this small purplish berry from the rain forests of Brazil has captured the imagination of a health conscious world. Claims are indeed impressive. A check of different acai berry web sites
will locate statements such as “highest ORAC score against the hydroxyl free radical of any fruit or vegetable tested to date” (3) or the acai berry will improve energy, libido, promote healthy hair, improve sleep, reduce pain and rejuvenate the mind body and soul (4). Of course even obesity (5) and the aging process can be positively effected (6).
A perusal of the scientific literature using Medline, MANTIS and other sources, paints a more realistic picture. Fifty-one studies relating to acai have been published and only 2 were clinical trials (7;8), both with 12 participants. These small trials did demonstrate antioxidant activity and bioavailability of the acai berry; however they did not compare the acai berry to any other fruit or vegetable. The authors did not make claims relating to health benefits other than improvements in anti-oxidant levels and bioavailability.
Much has been made of the high Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) of the acai berry. This is just one of many tests to measure the in vivo anti-oxidant properties of a food. One of the more complete studies measuring anti-oxidant activity utilized 4 different methods, including the ORAC. The authors rated the over all anti-oxidant potency in the following order: pomegranate juice > red wine > concord grape juice > blueberry juice > black cherry juice > acai juice > cranberry juice > orange juice > iced tea > apple juice (9). Another study examining antioxidant activity found the acai berry was not superior when compared to other foods such as the wild mulberry or peel of the gala apple (10).
Interestingly researchers also found not all acai berries were created equal. Color, time of year harvested and even year harvested (2002 was a very good year) impacted the levels of anti-oxidant activity. The spectrum of anti-oxidant qualities varies widely depending upon the above mentioned factors (11).
In conclusion one can state with confidence the acai berry is a good source of anti-oxidants. However if your budget is your first concern there are many other berries and fruits available at the local grocery store that are less expensive and at least equally effective.
The best reason found to use acai berries over other fruits and vegetables is not nutritional but environmental. Since the acai berry grows naturally in the rain forests, increasing demand for may slow destruction of the rain forests one berry at a time.