Açai berries (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) have long formed part of the staple diet of Indian tribes. With the appearance of a purple grape and taste of a tropical berry, they have been shown to have powerful antioxidant properties thanks to a high level of anthocyanins, pigments that are also present in red wine.
Most often used in fruit juices, the berries have grasped consumer attention despite often selling at many times the price of more ‘regular’ alternatives such as orange, apple or pineapple juice.
Value-added or hype?
The big selling point has been the berry’s appeal as part of the antioxidant-laden ‘superfruit’ category. But as the allure of new ‘exotic’ ingredients wears off, coupled with a tightening economic environment, consumers may no longer be so willing to pay the extra buck, suggests market analyst Mintel.
According to Mintel, many consumers may consider ‘super-premium’ juices to be more hype that value-added.
“This is evidenced by Mintel’s exclusive findings where 38 percent of fruit juice and juice drinks users believe that they can find the benefit of super-premium juices – antioxidants, all natural, etc. – in regular juices. Clearly, super-premium juices have failed to sustain any perceptible differentiation except their high price,” the group wrote in a report in January this year.
Nevertheless, Mintel said that the juice and drinks market has “certainly capitalized” on the popularity of the açai berry.
Figures provided to NutraIngredients-USA.com reveal a 67 percent increase in new açai product launches between 2007 and 2008 – from 36 new products introduced on the North American market in 2007 to 60 products the following year. This compares to just four new products in 2004, when açai had yet to be established in the market. In 2009 to date (through April 1), there have been 9 new product launches in the category.
Mintel explained that this market activity demonstrates a consumer “willingness to explore”. However, it said that increasing consumers’ awareness about the health benefits of Amazonian fruits such as açai is now the “main task” for manufacturers.
One of the market leaders in the açai juice category, Sambazon, provides detailed information on its website about the health benefits of açai. The company notched sales of $25m in the US last year predominantly in powders and drinks, with its Sambazon açai juice said to have experienced double to triple digit growth, despite being priced at $32 per gallon.
“The challenging economic climate has made consumers savvier as to how they can get a bigger bang for their buck. Any product providing true health benefit, i.e. with claims backed by science, or affordable luxury has appeared to command premium prices as well as growth in consumer demand,” writes Mintel.
Hit to category
A focus on science is particularly important in light of the recent hit suffered by the açai category from the sale of bogus products on the internet.
Early this year, the Better Business Bureau of Northern Indiana warned consumers against bogus celebrity campaigns promoting açai after it received thousands of complaints. Ad campaigns for the products, supposedly endorsed by the likes of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Rachel Ray, resulted in consumers signing up for a free trial of açai berry products that in fact cost them on a monthly basis.
At the end of last month, the Washington DC-based consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) again warned consumers off purchasing these bogus products.
Senior CSPI nutritionist David Schardt told NutraIngredients-USA.com at the time that the reason açai was being singled out for so much attention from less than scrupulous marketers was that the mystique surrounding the Brazilian berry had won over a susceptible public – and quick-buck merchants were fast to capitalize on that.
Some of the main studies conducted to date on the health benefits of açai include:
· Antioxidant capacity and other bioactivities of the freeze-dried Amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart. (açai).
Schauss AG, Wu X, Prior RL, Ou B, Huang D, Owens J, Agarwal A, Jensen GS, Hart AN, Shanbrom E.
J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Nov 1;54(22):8604-10.
· Phytochemical and nutrient composition of the freeze-dried amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart. (açai).
Schauss AG, Wu X, Prior RL, Ou B, Patel D, Huang D, Kababick JP.
J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Nov 1;54(22):8598-603.
· Endothelium-dependent vasodilator effect of Euterpe oleracea Mart. (Açaí) extracts in mesenteric vascular bed of the rat.
Rocha AP, Carvalho LC, Sousa MA, Madeira SV, Sousa PJ, Tano T, Schini-Kerth VB, Resende AC, Soares de Moura R.
Vascul Pharmacol. 2007 Feb;46(2):97-104. Epub 2006 Sep 1.
· In Vitro and in Vivo Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Capacities of an Antioxidant-Rich Fruit and Berry Juice Blend. Results of a Pilot and Randomized, Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover StudyG.S. Jensen, X. Wu, K.M. Patterson, J. Barnes, S.G. Carter, L. Scherwitz, R. Beaman, J.R. Endres, A.G. Schauss Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry; Article, doi: 10.1021/jf8016157