Confusion Over Acai Does Not Mute Market

Husband-and-wife team Steve Talcott, a biochemist, and Susanne Talcott, a food chemist, first began looking at acai in 2004. Although the scientific studies are not complete, what is clear is that acai does have extraordinarily high levels of antioxidants, which can help combat the effects of aging and heart disease.

"It's not a miracle berry, unfortunately," said Steve Talcott. "It is superior in antioxidants; it does have a very high antioxidant capacity. There is some really unique chemistry to the fruit. But it's not a drug. It's not a miracle, cure-all fruit. I mean this is a dietary component. The recommendation is to incorporate these fruits into our diet, but don't use them as drugs.

His wife concurred.

"Currently, there is no direct evidence, scientific evidence, that acai has any weight loss properties," said Susanne Talcott.

"The problem we have again," said Steve Talcott, "is that the marketing hype with acai seems to have surpassed the science."

Acai: The U.S. Market

Acai got its marketing push in the United States when Oprah, Dr. Mehmet Oz and other TV gurus enthusiastically discussed it.

They didn't claim miracles, but Oprah and Dr. Oz did label it a "superfood." That's not a scientific term, but it's a term that scam artists on the Internet seized upon, taking images of the TV duo without permission to promote weight loss supplements ... and steal people's credit card numbers.

FWM Labs, based in Hollywood, Fla., maintained a Web site promoting acai capsules. The site offered a "free" sample for a nominal fee for shipping and handling.

What followed, authorities say, were unauthorized $80 monthly credit card charges that couldn't be stopped.

WPLG, ABC's Miami affiliate, tried to talk with the company in person -- and was referred to the company's attorneys.

Alleged victims said they had to cancel their credit cards to get charges to stop. FWM finally agreed to pay $200,000 in penalties, refund millions to customers and stop its allegedly misleading marketing.

Oprah and Dr. Oz said it's easy to spot a scam because they never endorse products.

"If my name or picture is next to a product being sold, you can guarantee it's a scam," said Oz, "because I don't endorse any products and I would never let anyone use my name or my face, image, to sell a product."

Acai as 'Purple Gold'

In the U.S., the scams have given acai a bad name and led to confusion. But in the Amazon, the fruit is seen as nothing less than "purple gold." The exploding demand for this little fruit has brought jobs and prosperity to a remote region that has little of either.

Selma Pinheiro's entire family lives on the river on the profits from acai, in a home built by acai.

She said they can sell 140 or 150 baskets a day during the peak season, at anywhere from $7 to $17 per basket.

Locals Maria and Luis Bosch said acai has changed life for people of the Amazon. Profits from selling the fruit brought them electricity and sent their children to school.

Acai also is helping protect the rain forest. Until demand for the fruit exploded, the only value in the acai palm was the core of the tree itself. Heart of palm is a local delicacy and a popular export, but requires cutting the trees down. Now there's more money to be made preserving the tree and picking its fruit.

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