Acai still a scam, not a miracle fruit, but that's not stopping marketers

Scam warnings about the acai berry have been coming fast and furious for years now, yet every day new products appear, and existing products already on watch lists keep on rolling out in mail order packages, claiming to be touted by Oprah and charging unwitting buyers' credit cards. Why are people still falling for the "super food" claims made about this little berry from the Amazon?

Pronounced "ah-sigh-EEE," the acai berry has about the same antioxidant perks as blueberries, blackberries, and red grapes, which is nice, but not super. In addition to antioxidants, acai berries also have fiber and heart-healthy fats, Katherine Zeratsky, a nutritionist with the Mayo Clinic, wrote for the medical research group's website. Zeratsky is quick to point out that though manufacturers claim the berry can help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol and boost your energy, these claims have never been proven.

Yet, marketers continue to claim amazing things about the berry. It is the "effective ingredient" in many miracle diet pills, and is featured in products like acai-flavored ice cream, $40 MonaVie juice made with acai berry, and acai Absolut vodka. From Khiel's Acai Damage Protecting Toning Mist for hair to Sugar Acai Body Scrub, acai-branded products are as endless as marketers' claims.

Sometimes a picture of the acai berry is slapped on the label without even being in the product. BORBA Age Defying Advanced Recovery Cream has acai on the front of its label but it's missing from the ingredients list. Snapple's Acai Blackberry drink is actually made of corn syrup and pear juice, and is another example of a major brand trying to take advantage of the acai hype.

Here's the truth: the acai berry is simply another fruit that's good for you. Stephen Talcott, a biochemist, and his wife Susanne Talcott, a food chemist, have researched the claims around acai since 2004. Their findings, conducted at Texas A&M University, aren't complete, but they found, according to an ABC Nightline report, that acai has exceptionally high levels of antioxidants that help fight heart disease and problems associated with aging. Steve Talcott told Nightline, "There is some really unique chemistry to the fruit. But it's not a drug. It's not a miracle, cure-all fruit."

As for the weight-loss claims flooding the Internet, Talcott, who has become a leading expert on the acai berry, told the New York Times, "There is currently no scientific research to support a weight loss claim for açai fruit. Some companies are capitalizing on the fact that the açai berry is still mostly unknown to the broader public, and is sold as a miracle curative fruit from the deep, dark Amazonian jungle. It is doing nothing more than playing on consumer ignorance."

Unfortunately, these claims are going to continue, at least online, according to marketing-expert Michael Fleischner, author of SEO Now: Strategies for Dominating the World's Largest Search Engine. Through social networking and viral marketing, "information can be distributed so quickly and so rapidly. It's really hard to contain these things," says Fleischner. "There's also a lot of affiliate marketing programs, especially around products like these. I can put a link on my blog and say this is the best thing since sliced bread. If someone clicks on this product and buys it, I'm going to get a commission."

The kind of claims being made by acai berry companies are being challenged all over the country. Here's a sampling:
  • A major perpetrator, FWM Labs in Hollywood, FL, was forced to pay $200,000 in penalties as well as refund millions in sales. In Colorado, the Attorney General busted Nutra Pills, Inc. for continually charging consumers who entered their credit card information to receive a free trial of acai berry diet bills. Nutra Pills, Inc. grossed $40 million in 2009 from this "free-to-pay" con and has been forced to pay back $9 million.
  • A widespread deception has forced Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Oz, who dubbed acai a "superfood" on a 2008 episode of Oprah (which got the craze started), to file lawsuits against more than 40 companies claiming their endorsement for fake products.
  • In January 2009, the Better Business Bureau warned consumers that dozens of companies flaunt the South American acai weight loss supplements as a miracle drug. And various publications put out fraud-alerts on how to protect yourself from the acai weight-loss pill scam and others like it on the Internet.

As for the future of acai, expect to see more of it gracing the packaging of products. "You're going to see it in beverages. You're going to see in cosmetics," Steve Talcott told Nightline. "You're going to see it in more dietary supplements, you're going to see it in your shampoo. We are going to be drinking it and pouring it on your body."
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