So-called “superfruits” (plants with exceptional perceived health and disease-fighting benefits) seem to show up in the popular U.S. media fast and furiously, gaining sudden attention from such health-conscious celebrities as Mehmet Oz and Oprah Winfrey, inspiring scores of new products from functional food and nutritional supplement manufacturers, and, sometimes, attracting controversy and government warnings for their heavy marketing.
Three such superfruits—açai berry, goji berry, and pomegranate—burst onto the health food marketing scene with much fanfare in the very early 2000s, only to be unseated in the media headlines by newer (to U.S. consumers), more-exotic–seeming superfruits just a few years later.
For a moment, let’s turn our attention back to these three original blockbuster superfruits and ask, “Where are they now?”
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Açai berry, grape-like in appearance and harvested from South American açai palm trees, initially took the American public by storm, but then suffered some bad press from fraudulent weight-loss claims and conflicting public opinion on the multilevel-marketed açai beverage Monavie. (Additionally, the U.S. Library of Medicine states that drinking raw açai juice has been linked to outbreaks of American Trypanosomiasis, also known as Chagas Disease.1) Nevertheless, acai berry as a functional food and beverage ingredient sold through all combined channels, including conventional grocery stores and health food stores, is currently worth $119 million, according to data provided by market researcher SPINS (Schaumburg, IL). That’s three times as much as pomegranate, for instance, and 40 times more than mangosteen.
Despite that big number, which far surpasses sales of other superfruits, acai berry sales increased only a fraction of a percent during the last 12 months in the natural channel, decreased by a significant 22% in the specialty/gourmet channel, and decreased by 2% in the multi-outlet (conventional grocery) channel, according to SPINS.
Açai berries have, in recent years, been marketed for arthritis support, weight loss, high-cholesterol support, erectile-dysfunction support, improved skin appearance, “detoxification,” and general health; however, research on the berries remains limited, and claims about the health benefits of açai have not been fully substantiated.
1. “Acai.” U.S. National Library of Medicine consumer-information Web page, www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/1109.html. Accessed August 2, 2015.
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Native to Asia, the goji berry is a bright orangish-red berry that grows on a common shrub. In China, goji berries have been eaten and consumed as medicine for hundreds, even thousands, of years, while in the United States, goji berry was virtually unknown (except to the Chinese-American population) until about 2005.
The current goji berry market in the United States is valued at $31 million from all combined sales channels, according to data compiled by SPINS. This number is a fraction of açai’s current market value, but it is still enough to rank goji berry among the top-selling superfruits. Sales of the berry from all channels combined did take a modest dive of 1% from mid-June of 2014 through mid-July 2015.
A review of the scientific literature available for goji berry is published in the book Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects and describes goji as having a “remarkable history and a positive image in Chinese medicine and culture.”2
“Modern science indicates,” the authors state, that goji’s benefits, “long known to the Chinese, are indeed the result of the presence and combination of several biologically active molecules.” A few studies suggest a possible positive effect of goji berry consumption on eye health, neurodegenerative-disease prevention, sexual function, cardiovascular function, and aging. However, SPINS’ market researcher Kimberly Kawa describes the goji berry as “open to debate” as a superfruit because of its status as a nightshade plant. Nightshades are believed by some naturopaths and other alternative-medicine practitioners to produce undesirable symptoms in some individuals.3
2. Bucheli P et al. “Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects of Chinese Wolfberry.” Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition, Chapter 14. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2011. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92756/. Accessed July 30, 2015.
3. Smith G. “Nightshades: Problems from These Popular Foods Exposed to the Light of Day.” The Weston A. Price Foundation. www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/nightshades/. Accessed July 30, 2015.
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The pomegranate fruit grows on deciduous shrubs or small trees, which were originally native to the region of modern-day Iran. Its arils are typically eaten intact or crushed for juice. About 10 to 12 years ago, pomegranate juices and extracts experienced sudden, intense popularity in the United States, thanks in large part to the health-related marketing efforts of the company Pom Wonderful, founded in 2002 by owners of pomegranate orchards in California. Those efforts backfired a bit in 2010, however, when FDA issued the company a warning letter that contended Pom Wonderful’s pomegranate juices and dietary supplements were being marketed as therapeutics, rather than foods, and that subsequently, the products should be subject to the regulatory approval process for drugs.
Nevertheless, SPINS’ Kawa asserts that pomegranate’s benefits, unlike most other superfruits’ perceived benefits, are “backed up by many human studies,” a compilation of which can be viewed on the website Green Med Info.4 What’s more, well-known and respected botanist James A. Duke, PhD, includes pomegranates in his “Duke’s Dozen,” a list of “disease-fighting foods” published in his book The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods, pointing to both the polyphenols and the phytoestrogens housed within the fruit. He writes that pomegranates “have been shown to be cholesterol and heart-disease fighters in many studies” and refers to the fruit as “a potential cancer fighter.” And while the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health states on its Pomegranate information Web page that “we don’t have a lot of strong scientific evidence on the effects of pomegranate for people’s health,” the agency does highlight recent human studies showing the potential benefit of pomegranate juice for dialysis patients trying to avoid infections and of pomegranate extract for reducing dental plaque when used as an ingredient in mouthwash. The page also notes that pomegranate may “help improve some signs of heart disease,” but adds that the research is “not definitive.”
Pomegranate sales are currently at $35 million from all sales channels combined, according to SPINS data. That figure represents an 11% decline from the previous 12-month period ending in mid-June of this year.
Pomegranate may be losing some market share to superfruits that seem more novel and exotic to U.S. consumers, such as maqui and baobab; however, pomegranate has more published science on its side than do the “newer” superfruits, earning it a fairly solid reputation as a health food, and it continues to be the subject of ongoing study.
4. “Pomegranate,” a collection of recent scientific studies on Green Med Info. www.greenmedinfo.com/substance/pomegranate. Accessed August 2, 2015.
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