'Superfood' Acai May Not Be Worth Price

The gag reflex is a strange thing. Food can trigger it, as can the suspicion you're being swindled.

On first gulp, acai -- a gritty fruit drink of crushed, powdered berries -- sticks to the teeth.

But the real esophageal reaction comes when downing the "cleansing" liquid -- a sickly sweet elixir concocted of every vegetable you likely hated as kid -- Brussels sprouts, radishes, cauliflower, lentils and more.

Two weeks ago, my husband and I embarked on the acai diet, one that has been touted across the Internet to fight a variety of ills, including extra pounds, aging and cancer.

In between the Thanksgiving and Christmas food blowouts, we decided the only thing to do was to lose weight. We scoured the Internet and found a "free" 14-day trial, but like all deals that seem too good to be true, we lost a lot more than pounds.

Harvested as a deep purple pulp from 60-foot palm trees, acai (pronounced "ah-sigh-ee") is exported as a thick pulp and sold in a capsule, powder or juice form at health food stores and online.

Sales of acai products catapulted to $13.5 million last year from $435,000 two years previously, according to natural-food tracker Spins Inc. Acai products are distributed through such stores as Whole Foods, Wild Oats and Jamba Juice, as well as many conventional grocery chains and the Web.

The acai craze didn't begin but was fueled by discussions on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," where at least two of her experts -- dermatologist Dr. Nicholas Perricone and heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz -- have mentioned the so-called superfood.

Neither suggested acai was a weight-loss product.

Perricone, who promotes his own line of skin care products, calls the berry "one of the most nutritious and powerful foods in the world."

"Acai is a powerful antioxidant," said Oz. "Colorful dark foods like red wine, pomegranates, concord grapes, blueberries -- they call them brain berries -- are full of nutrients."

Dr. Oz: 'No Better' Than Other Good Foods

"Listen," he told me. "Acai seems to be as good as any other [good food], not better. Another example of a wonderful food."

The berry was virtually unknown outside the United States until 2001, when two brothers, Ryan and Jeremy Black, began to sell acai through Sambazon Inc., promoting its antioxidant properties.

Today billion-dollar beverage giants, including Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Anheuser-Busch Cos., are adding the fruit to their beverage lineups, according to The Wall Street Journal. It's also found in products from Stonyfield Farm and Haagen-Dazs. Procter & Gamble Co. recently infused acai into its Herbal Essence shampoos and conditioners.

But our goal was to lose weight. The plan was to eat three meals a day, moderately restricting calories and upping the exercise regimen.

We went to two different Web sites and ordered the "top ranked" acai berry products in capsule form. Both sites claimed "more effective" weight loss and anti-aging properties.

With shipping costs of $3.99 and $4.99 respectively for our free trial, it appeared a good deal.

We Were Both Suspect, but Curious

Products like acai come at a cost. One 60-capsule supply runs about $19.95 for a two-week dose. Acai user chat rooms encourage the use of an expensive "cleanser" to jump-start the regimen, so we invested in a $39.95 two-day "detox formula." I was the only one brave enough to try it. (More on that later.)

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