Health craze deprives poor Brazilians of acai berries




Rising U.S. sales of acai, a purple Amazon berry promoted as a "superfood" on Oprah Winfrey's Web site, are depriving Brazilian jungle dwellers of a protein-rich nutrient they've relied on for generations.

U.S. consumers are turning "a typical poor people's food into something like a delicacy," said Oscar Nogueira, who specializes in the fruit at Embrapa, Brazil's agricultural research company.

Spending on acai-based products by Americans seeking to lose weight, gain energy or slow aging doubled to $104 million last year, according to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm. Since U.S. demand took off early this decade, the fruit's wholesale price in Brazil has jumped about 60-fold, Embrapa data show.

In 2008, exports from Para, the South American country's main producing state, climbed 53 percent to account for about a quarter of output, according to the local government. Production, though, has increased little in the past five years.

Ms. Winfrey, 55, discussed the berry with Mehmet Oz on her TV talk show in February 2008, when the New York cardiologist presented his anti-aging checklist. It includes acai, blueberries and tomatoes.

"It has twice the antioxidant content of a blueberry," said Dr. Oz, 48.

Ms. Winfrey's site publishes dermatologist Nicholas Perricone's "10 Superfoods List," which includes the Brazilian fruit. Meriden, Conn.-based Perricone, 60, sells skin-care items and food supplements, including a powder that contains the berry, according to his Web page.

Winfrey disclaimer

Dr. Oz declined to be interviewed for this article. Dr. Perricone didn't reply to e-mail and telephone requests for comment.

Dr. Perricone's list on Ms. Winfrey's site includes a link to a statement saying she isn't associated with any acai product.

"We are pursuing unauthorized uses of Ms. Winfrey's name associated to acai-based products, none of which she has endorsed," said Don Halcombe, a spokesman for Harpo Inc., Ms. Winfrey's production company. Chicago-based Harpo is turning over complaints about such items to the Illinois attorney general's office, Mr. Halcombe said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Halcombe declined to comment on the effect increased U.S. demand is having on traditional consumers in Brazil.

In Igarape-Miri, an Amazon village 1,100 miles north of Brasilia, Francisca Neves, who sells manioc flour to neighbors and restaurants, says the bitter pulp she used to eat twice a day is now a luxury.

"Our granddaughter is turning 3 and we're going to have family coming to our house," said Ms. Neves, 68, as she paid 20 reais ($9.40), or about 7 percent of her monthly household income, for 2 liters (2 quarts) of the thick mush at a local street market.

Palm trees

Acai grows on palm trees and looks like a blueberry. In the Amazon, it is beaten, diluted in water and eaten with manioc, meat, fish or dried shrimp.

The pulp provides more protein in relation to its weight than eggs and milk, and has high levels of anthocyanin, an antioxidant, as well as vitamins E and B1, potassium, iron and calcium, according to Embrapa.

The Para government recommends its consumption. The berry is popularly associated with bone and muscular strength, longevity and a healthy immune system, said Lucival Cardoso, the state's chief health inspector.

"We encourage families to give acai to children as young as 6 months," Mr. Cardoso said. "It's also very filling; that's why it's traditionally associated with low-income family diets."

No FDA review

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't reviewed any acai-based products for safety or purported health benefits, Susan Cruzan, an FDA spokeswoman based in White Oak, Md., said in an e-mail.

Pills and other merchandise made with the fruit are sold in health food stores across America. Energy drinks containing the juice are sold by the supermarket chains Safeway Inc., Publix Super Markets Inc. and Kroger Co., and by natural-food retailer Whole Foods Market Inc.

Some U.S. Web sites say the berry can help with weight loss, sexual dysfunction, fighting cancer cells and regenerating muscles.

MonaVie LLC of South Jordan, Utah, offers a 25-ounce bottle of its MonaVie Original acai juice blend that distributors sell for $45. Its Web site says the drink provides the "phytonutrients and antioxidants needed to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle."

The company is struggling with independent distributors who promote the juice as a miracle drug, said Randy Larsen, executive vice president.

"We are very regulated here about what claims we can make or not make," Mr. Larsen said in a telephone interview.

Attempts in Brazil to boost production to meet demand have had little success because of the difficulty in obtaining land alongside riverbeds, said Alfredo Oyama Homma, an Embrapa rural economist based in Belem, Para's capital.

"The acai palm trees are most productive when surrounded by other trees, and they also need lots of water," Mr. Homma said.

In Brazil's southeast, where the country's most populated cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are, the berry's pulp is sold at juice bars and health clubs as smoothies, mixed with sugar or sweeteners and other fruits.

That's how Ryan Black, chief executive officer of San Clemente, Calif.-based Sambozon Inc., which makes acai-based pulp, energy drinks and supplements, discovered the berry in 1999.

Flavor and energy

"I was hooked on the flavor and energy," said Mr. Black, 34, who traveled to Rio with Ed Nichols, who is now his business partner. "We thought California would be a perfect market."

Mr. Black and Mr. Nichols, 34, shipped their first container of frozen pulp to California in 2000 and built a factory in Amapa, another state in the Amazon, six years later. In 2008, Sambazon's revenue rose 67 percent to $25 million, Mr. Black said.

Sambazon, short for Saving and Managing the Brazilian Amazon, sells its products at 15,000 locations across the U.S., Mr. Black said.

In Brazil, farmers traditionally sell their harvest in wicker baskets that hold about 14 kilograms (31 pounds) of fruit. Since 2000, the wholesale price of a basket has risen from one real to as much as 60 reais, Embrapa data show.

Ms. Neves says she and her fellow villagers, who call Igarape-Miri the world capital of acai, are paying the price of the berry's international fame.

"We are happy that people on the other side of the world are able to enjoy our acai, but we don't want to have to go without it," Ms. Neves said. "Why should we suffer so people who don't even know anything about the fruit can have their acai pills?"


Adriana Brasileiro in Rio de Janeiro can be reached at abrasileiro@bloomberg.net .




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