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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 21:23 EDT

Popularity Of Amazonian ‘Superfood’ Causes Shortages

May 14, 2009

After heavy promotion on Oprah Winfrey’s Web site, sales in the U.S. of acai, a purple Amazon berry promoted as a “superfood,” are skyrocketing and simultaneously depriving Brazilian jungle dwellers of a protein-rich nutrient they’ve relied on for generations, Bloomberg reported.

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

SPINS, a Schaumburg, Illinois-based market research firm, showed that sales of acai-based products doubled to $104 million last year, sparked by Americans seeking to lose weight, gain energy or slow aging.

This has caused the fruit’s wholesale price in Brazil to jump 60-fold.

The South American government reported the country’s main producing state climbed 53 percent in 2008 to account for about a quarter of output, yet production has increased little over the past five years.

The Oprah Winfrey show promoted acai in February as an anti-aging property, boasting it contained “twice the antioxidant content of a blueberry”.

Acai, which is reminiscent in appearance to the blueberry, grows on palm trees and inhabitants of the Amazon often eat it with manioc, meat, fish or dried shrimp.

Embrapa said the fruit is often mashed into a pulp and contains high levels of anthocyanin, an antioxidant, as well as vitamins E and B1, potassium, iron and calcium.

Lucival Cardoso, the Para government’s chief health inspector, recommends its consumption, as it is popularly associated with bone and muscular strength, longevity and a healthy immune system.

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

However, Susan Cruzan, an FDA spokeswoman based in White Oak, Maryland, told Bloomberg that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t reviewed any acai-based products for safety or purported health benefits.

But acai is sold throughout health food store and markets all across the U.S. and some American Web sites claim the berry can help with weight loss, sexual dysfunction, fighting cancer cells and regenerating muscles.

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

He explained that the acai palm trees are most productive when surrounded by other trees, and they also require lots of water.

Farmers in Brazil traditionally sell their harvest in wicker baskets that hold about 31 pounds of fruit. But the wholesale price of a basket has risen from one real to as much as 60 reais ($28.67) since 2000.

Francisca Neves, a 68 year-old resident of Igarape-Miri, an Amazon village 1,100 miles north of Brasilia, said she and her fellow villagers 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,” Neves said.
After heavy promotion on Oprah Winfrey’s Web site, sales in the U.S. of acai, a purple Amazon berry promoted as a “superfood,” are skyrocketing and simultaneously depriving Brazilian jungle dwellers of a protein-rich nutrient they’ve relied on for generations, Bloomberg reported.

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

SPINS, a Schaumburg, Illinois-based market research firm, showed that sales of acai-based products doubled to $104 million last year, sparked by Americans seeking to lose weight, gain energy or slow aging.

This has caused the fruit’s wholesale price in Brazil to jump 60-fold.

The South American government reported the country’s main producing state climbed 53 percent in 2008 to account for about a quarter of output, yet production has increased little over the past five years.

The Oprah Winfrey show promoted acai in February as an anti-aging property, boasting it contained “twice the antioxidant content of a blueberry”.

Acai, which is reminiscent in appearance to the blueberry, grows on palm trees and inhabitants of the Amazon often eat it with manioc, meat, fish or dried shrimp.

Embrapa said the fruit is often mashed into a pulp and contains high levels of anthocyanin, an antioxidant, as well as vitamins E and B1, potassium, iron and calcium.

Lucival Cardoso, the Para government’s chief health inspector, recommends its consumption, as it is popularly associated with bone and muscular strength, longevity and a healthy immune system.

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

However, Susan Cruzan, an FDA spokeswoman based in White Oak, Maryland, told Bloomberg that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t reviewed any acai-based products for safety or purported health benefits.

But acai is sold throughout health food store and markets all across the U.S. and some American Web sites claim the berry can help with weight loss, sexual dysfunction, fighting cancer cells and regenerating muscles.

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

He explained that the acai palm trees are most productive when surrounded by other trees, and they also require lots of water.

Farmers in Brazil traditionally sell their harvest in wicker baskets that hold about 31 pounds of fruit. But the wholesale price of a basket has risen from one real to as much as 60 reais ($28.67) since 2000.

Francisca Neves, a 68 year-old resident of Igarape-Miri, an Amazon village 1,100 miles north of Brasilia, said she and her fellow villagers 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,” Neves said.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia

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