Dec. 12, 2008 — -- 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."
"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.)
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.
"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.
Days later, we were billed $29.95 by a company called Fit Factory. When we called its toll-free number, we were told that "we have nothing to do with acai," but by accepting the trial offer, we had been automatically enrolled in a fitness Web site and would continue to be sent the product and be billed monthly until we canceled the order.
Our bank said it couldn't remove the charge, but Fit Factory's customer service offered to credit our bank account. We received the credit today.
When asked about the company's business practices, Braybon Spier of Fit Factory said, "We do get phone calls like this from time to time."
Spier said people don't read the "fine print" when placing their acai orders. "But we do have a lot of satisfied customers who have lost weight. I personally use it myself."
So I returned to the original Web site and called the manufacturer. In my excitement ordering acai, I must have inadvertently glazed over the "terms of agreement," which advised us to call and cancel our order within 14 days, or we'd be charged $89.31 every 31 days for a new supply of acai.
But there was no mention of a $29.95 Fit Factory membership.
And now Oz, whose name is associated with nearly every Web ad for acai, said Oprah's lawyers have been contacting some of the companies that sell acai.
'Not Where I Would Put My Money'
"One of the companies took one of the things I said and made claims that I endorsed their product," he said.
"Neither Oprah Winfrey nor Dr. Oz endorse or are associated with any acai berry product or on-line solicitation of such products," said Harpo spokeman Don Halcombe. "Harpo lawyers are aggressively pursuing all of the companies that we know about or are reported to us."
What Oz did say to television viewers is that acai "looked like a health food with nutritional benefits."
"We were looking at foods that have deep colors," said Oz. "These naturally colorful ones reflect antioxidant power."
As far as those weight-loss properties, Oz said, "I'd be surprised if by itself acai could help."
But, he confided, "it's not going to hurt you, and it's as good an antioxidant as anything else. That's not where I would put my money."
The best way to lose weight, according to Oz, is to avoid simple carbohydrates and incorporate the right nutrients into one's diet, lose that fat around the waist, exercise and add fruits, vegetables and fiber to the diet.
"All other things like supplements have limited benefits," he said. "If you order French fries, a Big Mac and a large coke, you're not going to lose weight and even the acai isn't going to help."
My husband and I learned that the hard way. "I have noticed nothing," he told me this morning, now nearly two weeks into our miracle diet. "I don't feel any different. No thumbs up for me."
But he did comment on a certain "glow" in my face. It must be the acai.