Does It Work? Can Acai Berries Help With Weight Loss?
BACKGROUND:The acai palm (pronounced Aah-sigh-EE) is a type of palm tree that grows in South America. The acai fruit is a purple berry, similar to a small grape, and is harvested twice a year. The edible fruit is used throughout South America, but is particularly important to people living in the Amazon jungle. Mixed with other foods or consumed as a juice, it is rich in protein, vitamins and antioxidants. It also leaves people feeling full, which is why it is traditionally associated with low-income family diets.
All this has been changing over the past few years. Demand for acai has shifted to the food supplement industry in developed countries. Oprah Winfrey discussed acai on her show in 2008. Interest in acai quickly mushroomed, with it widely promoted as a weight-loss remedy, energy booster and age-defying potion. According to the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, demand for the berries led to their wholesale price in Brazil increasing 60-fold in recent years. That may be good for producers, but it has transformed a staple part of poorer people’s diet into an expensive delicacy. Production cannot be increased quickly as acai trees grow best beside rivers and surrounded by different trees. Ironically, as those in developed countries consume acai to lose weight, those in South American jungles are losing one of their few affordable protein-rich foods.
EVIDENCE FROM STUDIES
Acai berries and juice are nutritious, containing vitamin A, calcium, iron and several fatty acids. The juice and fruit pulp are relatively high in protein and fat, which may explain why people feel full after consuming them. The berries are high in antioxidant content, which contribute to their bitter taste. A small study, with 12 participants, found that consuming acai did raise blood antioxidant levels.
However, that is where the scientific research ends for acai. No studies have been published on its ability to help people lose weight, become more healthy or age slower. While some companies simply market their products as nutritious, others claim significant weight loss. Testimonials are commonly used, where people describe the benefits they experienced when taking acai. Such success stories cannot be denied easily, but neither can they show what caused the changes.
Acai products themselves have not been reported to cause adverse effects. However, other types of problems have developed. The lack of controlled research leaves people without clear, independent guidance. The US Food and Drug Administration has not reviewed the effectiveness of any acai-based products. Until research is done that compares one group of people taking acai with another group taking a placebo or other diet strategy, claims about the effectiveness of acai cannot be supported or refuted.
But while some claim acai is the latest wonder diet supplement, others claim it is the latest diet scam. Oprah Winfrey’s corporation last year filed lawsuits against 40 food supplement companies that allegedly claimed she endorses acai, which she doesn’t, they say. Other companies are being investigated about their marketing strategies. At the same time, many companies make high quality products.
While many people claim acai helps them lose weight, no controlled research has been conducted in the area. The wider social implications of acai’s popularity must be examined also. The Amazonian people should not lose their nutritious food to support a Western fad. In the long run, sustaining a healthy weight requires lifestyle changes. No pill or juice will replace the need to reduce consumption and increase activity.
Dónal OMathúna has a PhD in pharmacy, researching herbal remedies, and an MA in bioethics, and is a senior lecturer in the School of Nursing, Dublin City University. He ïs author of Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, Updated and Expanded Edition,Zondervan, 2007