Health-conscious U.S. consumers are buying hundreds of millions of dollars of so-called superfruits annually, even as critics contend their nutritional benefits are overblown and, in some cases, nonexistent.
Superfruits burst onto the scene a few short years ago as dieticians — and marketers — touted them as low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods said to contain antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Proponents also have claimed that the various fruits are helpful with arthritis, cancer, weight loss, high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, detoxification and aging.
"Booming superfruit sales are a triumph of marketing over science, that's the bottom line," says nutritionist author Jonny Bowden. "The fruits aren't useless, but also aren't anything that people are claiming they are."
The top five best-selling superfruits — acai berries, cranberry, coconut, elderberry and goji berries — brought in more than $205 million in the 52 weeks ending April 16, according to the Spins, a market research firm for the natural products industry.
Just the sales of juice, powder, tea and supplement capsules containing the Brazilian acai (pronounced a-sigh-EE) berry generated more than $130 million, Spins data shows.
The market, however, is volatile. Pomegranate would surely have made the list, but its sales during the most recent period, dropped some 23 percent to $8.65 million, reversing a previous gain. Coconut sales of $22 million, on the other hand, grew 50 percent as various canned and bottled coconut waters fill grocery shelves.
Acai sales, up 32 percent in 2009, are down 6.2 percent from a year ago.
“I would say that trends are exactly that — a trend,” says Brent Coons, director of Spins product library. “Acai was hot when it was new and especially when it crossed over to mainstream [grocery stores]. It is still a highly valued commodity fruit with good health benefits, but its buzz has tapered off.”
Indeed, acai sales, up 32 percent in 2009, are down 6.2 percent from a year ago.
Critics contend that the superfruit phenomenon is mostly a marketing gimmick foisted on a gullible public in a largely unregulated atmosphere.
“I don’t mind that people are eating more fruits and vegetables,” says Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. “Presumably they can afford it. If people with discretionary income choose to drink pomegranate juice instead of much-cheaper orange juice, it’s OK with me as long as the companies aren’t claiming it cures cancer.”
Acai berries grown in the Amazon rainforests, goji berries from China, dragon fruit from Vietnam, purple mangosteen fruit from Indonesia — all represent the sort of exotic cure-alls that have captivated the American public from time to time, skeptics say.
“They sound sexy. We don't have them here, so we think they must be good for us,” said Felicia D. Stoler, a nationally known nutritionist and author. “Mangosteen, goji and acai are all intriguing, but you'll often pay more for them. It’s sold as a potion in a juice to people not willing to do the work to get healthy.”
A bottle of mangosteen juice can cost as much as $40 at some grocery stores yet an independent lab test performed for The Associated Pressshowed the XanGo brand of mangosteen juice to have no more antioxidants than other, less expensive fruit juices.
Oregon State University's Linus Pauling Institute , which specializes in diet and nutrition, performed the lab tests, finding XanGo’s antioxidant strength slightly higher than cranberry juice, lower than black cherry and less than half of blueberry juice.
“Any berries with deep rich color — blueberry, strawberry, goji, acai — by definition have tons of these plant chemicals that are good for you,” says Bowden. “You simply don’t need to pay $40 a bottle to get juice with antioxidants. I have nothing bad to say about these products. They are very good for you — except that I’m not convinced you need to spend that kind of money. There’s a tremendous amount of marketing with very little scientific backup.”
Mayo Clinic nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky concedes that acai berries may be a good source of antioxidants, fiber and heart-healthy fats, but adds that research is limited.
"Claims about the health benefits of acai haven't been proved,” she says. “Many fruits besides acai berries provide antioxidants and other nutrients that are important to your health.”
The superfruit category of foods is an outgrowth of the superfood movement, generally traced back to the 2003 best-seller by Dr. Steven Pratt, "SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life.
Blueberries and oranges are the only fruits that made Pratt’s list. Now, nutritionists like Bowden and others have drawn up lists of several hundred superfoods. (Bowden's, for instance, is "The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth".)
The concerns of the nutrition community have been matched by some regulatory action.
In 2007, the European Union banned use of the term "superfood" unless there’s enough scientific evidence to prove the claims.
In the U.S., retailers operate in a much looser regulatory atmosphere. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, passed by Congress in 1994, allows the largely unregulated sale of supplements unless the Food and Drug Administration can prove them harmful.
In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration stopped acting on consumer complaints against misleading health claims after a court ruling found the industry was protected under the First Amendment.It does issue warnings from time to time.
“These new superfood companies are all so eager to have health claims on their packages,” says Nestle. “They all hide behind the First Amendment.Congress needs to give the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration more power to regulate health claims more tightly.”
In the past year, the Food and Drug Administration sent out letters to 17 companies, warning them for making health claims more suited to drugs than food.
In the current environment, its the Federal Trade Commission that has the power to act.
Last September, filed a complaint against juicemaker Tropicana, the makers of POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, claiming there’s no science to support its claims about POM's effectiveness in easing erectile dysfunction, arterial plaque and prostrate cancer
POM countered by saying its health claims are supported by 55 published studies, costing $34 million, and cited "its First Amendment rights to communicate the promising results of our extensive scientific research program...."
Market watchers say that when food companies see a fruit like acai rack up $130 million in annual sales after just a few years on the shelves, the desire to replicate that success is strong.
“Manufacturers are looking for the next acai,” says Kelsey Blackwell of Natural Foods Merchandiser. “They want something that will generate that amount of buzz."