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Superfruits, super powers?

March 10, 2008|Emily Sohn | Special to The Times

Want a taste of the tropics? Forget the plane ticket. Go to the grocery store and take your pick: acai sorbet, mangosteen iced tea, pomegranate granola, noni smoothies, yogurt-covered dried goji berries and more.

Fruits from faraway lands have been showing up in a growing number of products lately: bottled water, granola, powders, energy bars. With labels that evoke jungles and beaches, most promise to fight cancer, boost immunity and extend your life span, among other benefits.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, March 13, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Superfruit: An article in Monday's Health section on tropical superfruits identified a photograph as an acai palm. The image was that of a fan palm. The article also said the word "acai" is pronounced "ah-SIGH-ee." The word is pronounced "ah-sigh-EE."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, March 17, 2008 Home Edition Health Part F Page 4 Features Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Superfruit: A March 10 Health section article on tropical superfruits identified a photograph as the acai palm. In fact, the image was that of a fan palm. The article also said that the word "acai" is pronounced "ah-SIGH-ee." The word is pronounced "ah-sigh-EE," with the emphasis on the final syllable. (You can hear the word pronounced at www.acai-health.org/acai.mp3.)

But will a mangosteen a day keep the doctor away any better than an apple can? And is it worth the extra price you'll pay to get ingredients that have crossed oceans to get to you?

If you believe the companies that market these ingredients, the answer is a loud yes.

"Innumerable people across the world, including health professionals, have reported astonishing and life-changing health improvements as a result of using Noni," claims the Hilo, Hawaii-based Healing Noni company, which markets juice from the fruit of Morinda citrifolia, an Asian shrub.

Or as the San Clemente-based, acai-focused Sambazon company puts it: "Say hello to acai, the fruit that's making believers of world-class athletes and health-conscious people everywhere. Grown in the Amazon rain forest, acai is truly a gift from Mother Nature."

Nutrition researchers and dietitians aren't so sure. So far, they say, there are no gold-standard-type studies to support the idea that exotic superfruits carry special health benefits. Eating a variety of fresh, colorful produce, they add, does far more good than obsessing over whatever the superfruit of the moment happens to be.

And some worry that consumers are too quick to believe in whatever's new and different.

"I hate that term 'superfruit,' like your [fruit] is somehow wearing the cape," says Jeffrey Blumberg, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston. "There's no evidence that one type of fruit is better for you than any other variety. They're all good."

A handful of complaints in recent years filed by consumer advocacy groups have targeted the vague and overstated claims made by the dietary supplement industry, some of which have sparked official grievances and lawsuits. Pom Wonderful gained angry attention from the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus in 2005 for advertising that its juice could reduce arterial plaques by as much as 30%, a claim based on a small and limited pilot study.

Exotic superfruit products are the latest addition to the booming popularity of "superfoods," a marketing category (as opposed to a scientific one) that includes antioxidant-rich foods and beverages, such as red wine, dark chocolate, tea and blueberries. And for a growing number of Americans, the lure of the exotic is proving too tempting to resist.

In 2007, sales of goji berry-enhanced products were up nearly 75% from 2006 at natural-food supermarkets, according to SPINS, a natural-products market research firm based in Schaumburg, Ill. Sales of acai (pronounced ah-SIGH-ee) products grew by more than 50% at natural-food supermarkets.

And pomegranate-related sales rose more than 60% -- perhaps no wonder, given the recent sharp growth in pomegranate offerings. A startling 350 new pomegranate beverages were introduced in 2006 alone, according to a spokeswoman at the L.A.-based Pom Wonderful company. (Numbers for 2007 aren't yet available.)

Superfruit companies are funneling millions of dollars into research aimed at proving that yes, the secret to longevity is a refreshingly exotic sip away. And the scientists they fund, based at major research institutions, are turning up evidence to support the health benefits of their power foods -- showing, for example, that mushed-up acai can pummel free radicals in test tubes, and that goji berry extracts slow the growth of human cancer cells in Petri dishes.

It is only a matter of time, the companies say, before Western science catches up to a long history of traditional medicinal use in remote rain forests and mountain villages.

It's about antioxidants

Most superfoods get their "super" label from antioxidants, molecules that fight free radicals. These cell-damaging chemicals emerge from nearly everything our bodies do that involves oxygen, including digesting and breathing.

Our cells make some antioxidant defenses on their own, but plants make far more. The theory is that eating antioxidant-rich plants gives us extra help in battling our own free radical demons.

There are many thousands of plant-based antioxidants, called phytochemicals, and these compounds appear in various combinations in different types of produce. Blueberries, red wine and acai, for example, are high in anthocyanins. Tea has lots of catechins. Mangosteens are rich in xanthones. Dark chocolate contains flavonoids.

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