It’s 2 a.m. and you’re cramming for a midterm tomorrow. Your brain is in need of a serious recharge, so you head to Durfee’s for an energy drink. You find a variety of products, including drinks and supplements enhanced with açaí berry extracts. Your caffeine-addled mind can’t tune out the spam e-mails that advertise açaí products as improving general health or sexual performance, so you grab the $3.49 “Açaí Machine,” made by Naked Juice.
A beautiful purple berry indigenous to Central and South America, the açaí berry (pronounced a-sigh-e) stepped into the nutritional limelight after being promoted on the Oprah Winfrey Show. But açaí berries are just victims of America’s obsession with “functional eating” — the transformation of the American diet from being composed of whole foods to being composed of products enhanced by nutrients and extracts. The açaí berry has been hijacked from the Southern Hemisphere, stripped of its essence as an actual fruit and processed into supplements, juices and smoothies. Instead of the açaí berry being consumed whole, American industrial food companies have ground, extracted and chemically processed the fruit so that it is no longer a fruit at all, but rather chemical compounds injected into various products. If the açaí berry were sold as a fruit, American food and supplement companies would have little to gain. But when the berry is transformed into colorful juices and tablets in chic packaging, there is a mound of profit to reap.
Functional foods are replacing whole foods in every grocery store aisle. Once it was a simple choice between margarine and butter. Now this choice is complicated by a plethora of high-priced butter and margarine-like imposters made with omega-3 fatty acids, olive oil and even flaxseed. Companies are re-branding chocolate as a health food, citing it as a rich source of antioxidants, which are compounds that protect cells from damage by free radicals. In short, American consumers are falling prey to untested messages promising improved health. Everything is enhanced, fortified or improved — at extra cost, of course.
The açaí berry is merely the latest in this line of glorified food products. Açaí products are advertised as being able to prevent heart disease, improve digestion, assist with weight loss, delay aging and lead to better sleep, just to list a few claims. The evidence for any of these health claims, however, is lukewarm at best and is often absent. Companies point to the antioxidant content of the berry as the source of health benefits. But the limited research on the antioxidant content of açaí berries is conflicting. A 2006 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found high levels of antioxidants, while a 2008 article in the same journal found that açaí berries had lower antioxidant levels compared to red wine, grape juice and pomegranate juice.
The açaí berry has unfortunately been caught up in America’s functional food frenzy. Whenever the industrial food complex identifies a marketable food, it processes the food to the nth degree, fabricates it into a quasi-food product with attractive labeling and unproven health claims, and voilà! A new product is born for Americans to consume. Don’t be fooled; açaí products will soon be replaced by other functional food products with attractive, exotic names. Save your money and avoid overpriced açaí products until further research demonstrates the berry’s health benefits.
Kimberly Lauth is a graduate student at the Yale School of Medicine.