'Superfood' Acai May Not Be Worth Price

My husband took two capsules twice a day from our Internet supplier. I bought a dried powder at $17.95 from a GNC store, scooping it into a glass of milk two to four times a day.

We were both highly suspicious but curious. And determined.

"Of course, it's marketing," said GNC franchise owner Shakil Kazi, who sells a full line of acai antioxidants. His store does not promote them as weight loss products, still people come in looking for them as diet aids.

"That's what eight out of 10 of my customers are looking for -- weight loss," he said. "We can sell anything for weight loss. And if it works even just a little, it gets a million people in the stores."

"It's a really good sell," he said of acai. "Many of our customers are looking for it after they see it on television and in magazines."

With a flavor that faintly resembles raspberries and chocolate, the fruit has 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes and 10 to 30 more times than the artery-protective flavonoids of red wine, according to Oprah.com.

Acai seems to inhibit key enzymes in the body, perhaps reducing inflammation, "but it's hard to say" with few available scientific studies, according to Oz.

Marketing Hype

"Most [weight loss] claims I am aware of are not validated at all," said Susanne Talcott, a Texas A&M researcher who conducted a human study that showed acai is absorbed by the body and has the potential to bring some health benefits.

"[The study] is a good start, but no basis for some of the outrageous claims that are made and unfortunately believed by consumers," she said.

Indeed, my husband and I were beginning to wonder when the weight was going to fall off. At the end of the first week, I had lost only 1 pound. My husband wouldn't divulge his numbers, but I'd say he puffed up.

"Invariably, as is the case with these products, the hype gets way ahead of the science," said Dr. David Katz, associate clinical professor of public health and medicine at Yale University. "You get more bang for the buck by just eating more fruits and vegetables."

While there is some merit to the rich antioxidant content of exotic fruits such as acai, consumers can get the same punch in dark chocolate and an array of other foods, such as oranges, tomatoes and blueberries, according to Katz.

"There really are two fallacies: one is that we can package the benefits of a food into a supplement - that often doesn't work," he said. "The second is that just because a food is high in antioxidants, it will translate into unique health benefits. We have no evidence of that either."

Consumers tend to think that "if an antioxidant juice like acai is good, then more must be better," he said. "You'll be able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, sprout wings and compete with Einstein."

Well, all we were was constipated. And still fat. And feeling ripped off.

"This is age-old, like snake oil salesmen off the horse-drawn wagons," Katz said. "But in modern times, we are even more eager for a quick fix. If all the marketing industry needed to do was tell the truth, everyone on Madison Avenue would be looking for work."

We were looking for the number of our bank to get a new debit card.

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