Acai Berry Supplements. Super fruit or super rip off?

A reader wrote, “I would like to see Dr. Walt do a blog topic on the claimed health benefits, to include weight loss, from taking Acai Berry supplements. There seems to be a lot of controversy and confusion about the Acai berry and it would be helpful to get Dr. Walt’s unbiased opinion.” Here it is:

Acai (pronounced AH-sigh-EE) is a palm tree widely distributed in the northern area of South America. Acai gained popularity in North America after being promoted by Dr. Nicholas Perricone as a “Superfood for Age-Defying Beauty” on the Oprah Winfrey show.

Orally, acai has been used for osteoarthritis, hypercholesterolemia, erectile dysfunction, weight loss and obesity, “detoxification,” and for improving general health. Acai has also been touted for reducing the risk of heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancers . . . among an ever-growing list of other health claims.

As a food, the acai berry is consumed raw and as a juice. The juice is also used commercially as a beverage and in ice cream, jelly, and liquors. In manufacturing, acai berry is used as a natural food colorant.

ConsumerLab.com says, “Acai berry has antioxidant properties and is a staple of the traditional Brazilian diet. In recent years, supplements and drinks made from acai have become popular in the U.S. due to extensive promotion and mention in the media as a ‘super fruit.'”

“However,” Consumerlab says, “there are no reliable tests to authenticate acai in these products.” And, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD) agrees.

Regarding the SAFETY of Acai Berry, NMCD says, “There is insufficient reliable information available about the safety of acai.” For women who are pregnant or breast feeding, NMCD says, “(There is) insufficient reliable information available.” Therefore, since it has not been proven safe, the NMCD recommends, “avoid using,” especially during pregnancy or lactation.

As far as EFFECTIVENESS, NCMD reports “There is insufficient reliable information available about the effectiveness of acai . . .” for ANY indication. In other words, there’s NO convincing proof it works for anything.

Concerned that products might contain unwanted ingredients, ConsumerLab.com recently purchased a half-dozen acai products and tested them for heavy metals, chlorinated pesticides, caffeine and undeclared stimulants.

ConsumerLab.com reported that all of the selected products met quality criteria for the tested contaminants.

However, ConsumerLab.com found that one acai “cleansing support” supplement lacked a required warning concerning potent laxative ingredients. Another with an unspecified amount of caffeine provided over 100 mg of the stimulant per day. Acai formulas with caffeine or laxatives are often promoted for weight loss or cleansing purposes.

Dr. William Obermeyer, ConsumerLab.com Vice President of Research, cautioned consumers that “Acai itself has no proven benefit as a weight loss, ‘cleansing,’ or ‘detox’ supplement.”

He also warned, “Products marketed as such may contain other ingredients, such as powerful stimulant laxatives including cascara sagrada bark and senna leaf, which can be dangerous if used long-term.”

As a Natural Products Chemist at the FDA in 1990’s, Dr. Obermeyer participated in a panel that investigated the deaths of several women who had used such laxatives. That investigation led the State of California to adopt a required warning label for stimulant laxatives. ConsumerLab.com strongly recommends that such warnings be present on all supplements containing stimulant laxatives to alert consumers of the potential safety concern with these ingredients.

According to one news report, the Nutrition Business Journal has said that total U.S. sales of acai reached $30 million in 2007, jumping 86% from 2006. In addition, SPINScan reported 121% additional growth in sales during 2008 in the health and natural food stores.

And, the report says, “Some companies selling acai products have also been accused of unethical billing and/or advertising practices.”

So, at least based upon the best science available, it you purchase this supplement to lose weight, the only thing that’s going to get skinny is your wallet.

I don’t recommend it.

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