The acai (ah-sigh-EE') -- it's today's new "superfood."
Given the claims -- fast and effortless weight loss, reduced wrinkles, bolstered immune system, enhanced sexual desire -- it's small wonder acai has been embraced enthusiastically by nutrition faddists.
Native to Central America and South America, the purple berrylike fruit is a relative of the blueberry and cranberry, and like them, it is high in antioxidants. Scientists believe that eating five to seven servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables every day lowers the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Consumed in beverages or mixed with granola or tapioca, the fruit has long been a staple in certain Brazilian populations. In the past few years, it has become increasingly popular in North America and beyond as a dietary supplement taken in capsule, powder, pulp and juice forms.
"It's even found in beauty products, such as facial creams," says New York registered dietitian Keri Gans, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "This is what happens when something is widely touted and very well-marketed as a superfood," she says. "But whenever one food is singled out as the answer to all your nutrition needs, it's always too good to be true. There are no human or animal studies that support the claims for acai."
No one is saying it can't be part of a well-balanced, nutritious diet, but there are caveats, according to Gans. "The best way to get nutrients is to eat foods in their whole form, not as supplements," says the dietitian, who admits she never has seen acai in its natural state. And there's the added bonus of pleasure and satisfaction gained from eating whole foods instead of swallowing pills.
Acai can be expensive, too, Gans says. "The juice can sell for up to $40 per bottle. In today's economy, that's expensive when compared with buying real fruits and vegetables."
People are paying a lot of money for a supplement that is not showing to be any more powerful than real berries, she explains. "By comparison, what's better than sitting down to a luscious bowl of fresh berries you can buy for far less at your supermarket?"
Following the steps of generations of ill-conceived weight-loss programs -- they've ranged from swallowing live tapeworms to the grapefruit diet -- acai does not include reality in its claims.
One of the biggest downfalls in any weight-loss program is the dieter's feeling hungry between meals, for example. Satiety, the feeling of being comfortably full, is a natural human desire that can play havoc with a hungry dieter's good intentions, nutritionists agree.
"If you feel fuller and this prevents you from eating after a short period or overeating at the next meal, you're ahead of the game," Gans says.
She offers a simple formula that focuses on fiber, protein and fats, all of which take more time to digest and keep you comfortably full longer between meals.
"Overall, your meals or snacks should be high in fiber," Gans says. "Fiber in whole-wheat pasta, breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables takes longer to digest, helps stabilize blood sugar and gives you a feeling of fullness." Then combine some protein with your meals. Add milk to your cereal. "The protein in the milk takes longer to digest than cereal alone."
Also include some protein with your snacks. "If you have a piece of fruit and you have it with yogurt, it will take longer to digest."
Healthy fats -- such as those in olive oil, almonds and avocados -- help you control hunger, as well. "More energy is exerted to digest fats, and people who consume fat with meals are more easily satiated," Gans says. Fats also contribute to the good taste and enjoyment of foods.
Losing or controlling weight and staying satiated is a one-two-three proposition:
*Choose high-fiber foods for meals and snacks.
*Combine protein with carbohydrates to keep you full longer.
*Add healthy fats in the diet to keep you satiated.
Dieting is not about popping a pill or avoiding any group of foods, Gans cautions. "You want to control your weight and well-being with portions. But any kind of diet plan that promotes eliminating whole food groups will be temporary and can also set you up for nutritional deficiency."