A few years ago, pomegranate was suddenly everywhere, but new options like goji berries and mangosteen became popular once the bright red seed-filled fruit went mainstream.
Nature's perfect energy fruit
Now the buzz fruit is acai, pronounced "a-sigh-ee". It's the latest trend in an increasingly popular food category: functional foods, defined as those that provide some benefit outside of basic nutrition. A dark purple Brazilian berry promoted as packed with fibre, phytochemicals and essential fatty acids, acai has been called "nature's perfect energy fruit" by well-known nutritionist Dr. Nicholas Perricone.
Acai does have an impressive nutritional profile: it's high in healthy fats like omega fatty acids and phytochemicals like antioxidants, and low in sodium, cholesterol and natural sugars. It also contains soluble and insoluble fibre, and essential amino acids.
But while the research on acai is promising, it's also new, which means that consumers need to be wary of overblown health claims and deceptive marketing.
Overblown health claims
"The acai berry is one of the most nutritious and powerful foods in the world," said Jeff Graham, managing director of product development for MonaVie, makers of two juice beverages that contain acai berries, along with eighteen other fruits.
Some critics say that functional food products can be a costly way to get your vitamins and minerals. For example, MonaVie sells for about $40 for a 25.3-ounce bottle. Consumed at the recommended rate of two to four ounces daily, it will last about a week and cost about $4 to $6 a day.
Graham acknowledged that the product is not inexpensive, but said the cost can be comparable to eating the recommended daily servings of fruits, depending on what is consumed.
Given that reality, Graham said, MonaVie offers a convenient way to get some of the antioxidants – along with a portion of the vitamins, minerals and fibre – provided by fruits.
Trends aside, consumers have always been curious about the health benefits of particular foods. As it stands, the scientific evidence shows that acai is a nutritious fruit, and eating it certainly isn't unhealthy. Further research may show that acai has particular health benefits due to its combination of various compounds.
In the meantime, consumers shouldn't neglect their overall diet while waiting for a miracle product.