Legitimate acai claims

by Jeff Gelski
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An effort is under way to find health claims that are proven scientifically for acai, a South American fruit known for its antioxidant content. Sambazon, San Clemente, Calif., in September announced it has created a Sambazon Scientific Advisory Board to develop and execute human studies examining the health impact of acai consumption.

The board’s creation comes in a year where published reports, including one in The New York Times, focused on Internet sales pitches that did not involve Sambazon but did involve acai weight-loss claims.

The Sambazon board will seek more credible claims. The board includes Jack Bukowski, chief scientific officer for the Nutritional Science Research Institute and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School; Jonathan Gordon, who has a doctorate in chemical and process engineering and now runs the Glasgow Consulting Group, L.L.C.; and Marie Spano, vice-president of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

The board will gather scientific research already done on acai, said Jeremy Black, co-founder and vice-president of marketing for Sambazon.

"Another major goal of the board is to help us put together our plan of doing some of our own research," he said. "There is some really good stuff about acai out there, but it is limited."

Sambazon, involved in acai processing since its formation as a company in 2000, runs a factory in Brazil and offers acai products at retail. The company and iTi Tropicals, Lawrenceville, N.J., have a strategic alliance under which iTi Tropicals distributes organic acai fruit pulp, juice and juice concentrate in bulk to food and beverage manufacturers in North America.

A July report called "Superfruit" from The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., suggested mixing acai juice with other juices in beverages.

"Selling acai juice by itself, for example, would trigger taste concerns since consumers have little experience eating this fruit by itself," the report said. "This strategy leads most easily to marketing antioxidant power, primarily because other phytochemicals are not at all well understood by today’s consumers."

Sales of products with antioxidant claims are on the upswing, according to The Nielsen Co. U.S. sales of such products for the four-week period ended Oct. 3, 2009, were $194,924,704, an 18% increase from sales of $164,702,558 for the four-week period ended Oct. 4, 2008. The sales covered U.S. grocery stores, drug stores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark.

Sambazon measures the antioxidant capacity of the acai fruit after it has been processed in Brazil, Mr. Black said. A number of product tests also happen after product is packaged and in the United States.

Sambazon product claims mostly involve antioxidant comparisons to other fruits’ antioxidant content or promoting the product as an organic fruit juice.

"You don’t want to make huge, audacious claims," Mr. Black said.

Acai is rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins, he said. Anthocyanins are found in dark fruit like purple corn and blueberries and in red wine. The anthocyanins fight free radicals and thus may have a health benefit against cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Good research has been done on blueberries and some research has been done on red wine and pomegranates, he said.

"We’ve just kind of hit the tip of the iceberg on antioxidants," Mr. Black said. "There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of research into them."

Sensory test studies acai levels in juices

A study performed at Ghent University in Belgium examined how well consumers liked fruit juices with different acai concentrations. They used a newly developed fruit juice with high acai content (40% acai) and five commercially available fruit juices with lower acai concentrations ranging from 4% to 20%.

"The results showed a negative relationship between the juices’ overall liking and their acai concentrations," the researchers wrote. "Although the vast majority of consumers preferred the juices having a low acai content (4% to 5% acai), a small consumer segment liked the juice with 40% acai.

"Flavor or taste experience superseded consumers’ perceived health benefits as the primary determinant of the fruit juices’ overall liking."

Results of the study appeared in the June-July issue of the Journal of Food Science.

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