Açaí: Examining the Environmental Impact and Worker’s Conditions

It’s amazing to see just how much power some celebrities hold over the masses. They can create the latest trends and sway public opinion with just a few sentences. In the case of Oprah and her sidekick Dr. Oz, turning açaí berries from a Brazilian food into a household name was simple.

Background Information

Açaí (pronounced ah-sah-ee) berries are the small, dark purple fruit of a type of palm tree that grows primarily in the Brazilian rain forest. They are eaten by locals as part of their daily diets. In North America, açaí berry juice has been sold in health food stores long before the recent craze because of their “superfood†qualities. Açaí berries contain amino acids (the building blocks of protein), antioxidants, fibre, essential fatty acids (the “healthy fatsâ€) and vitamins. Because of this, açaí berries are a wonderful, nutritious food and a great addition to one’s daily diet. 

However, that’s all that açaí berries can truly be promoted as. Since its recent publicity on the Oprah show, companies and scams have been claiming that açaí promotes weight loss, increases energy, improves sleep, improves heart health and even increases penis size. Indirectly, some of these claims can be considered true. For example, fibre and essential fatty acids (Omega 3 in particular) have been known to support heart health. High fibre content may also reduce hunger cravings, thus enhancing weight loss. The American Diabetes Association recommends 24 grams of fibre help balance blood sugar levels. However, the serving size in Monavie and Sambazon’s açaí range from 1 to 3 grams. Açaí is not a drug, a cure for any disease or weight loss supplement. It is simply a very nutritious food, that, when used in conjunction with other strategies, supplements and foods, can contribute to a healthy lifestyle. As “Genesis Today†states in its magazine ad for açaí: “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any diseaseâ€. And no, in case you were wondering, it does not increase penis size.

Overlooked Questions

In the middle of all this hype, there are questions about the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest in the process of açaí berry harvesting, as well as the workers who are involved in the growing and harvesting of the berries.

The cotton, sugar cane, coffee and cocoa industries are all examples of industries in which the Western “developed world†has exploited the people and environment of developing countries such as Brazil. Only recently has some of the sugar, cocoa, coffee and cotton industry become regulated through Fair Trade practices and regulations. However, there is still much work to be done in these areas. Thus, it is only natural to consider the health and safety of the farmers, workers and local ecosystem in this açaí berry boom.

I contacted three companies who make, distribute, and promote açaí products: Genesis Today, Sambazon and Monavie. I asked them all the same questions: “Where are how do you harvest the berries? Is your company directly involved in the berry harvesting or does another company do that for you? Is the process sustainable? Is your company doing anything to preserve the natural state of the ecosystem? Are the workers protected by any local laws? What are they paid? Is your company doing anything to protect the workers?â€

Company Profile: Sambazon

Sambazon deals exclusively with wild harvested açaí. Their products include juices, smoothies, supplements in powder and capsule form, energy drinks, and even sorbet. Sambazon’s products are Certified Organic through the USDA.

Sambazon was extremely quick to respond to my queries, and provided me with plenty of information about both the preservation of the rainforest, as well as the well-being of the workers there. First of all, Sambazon is Ecocert Fair Trade certified, ensuring that an independent governing body oversees Sambazon’s practices. As well, Sambazon has also founded the Sustainable Amazon Partnership (SAP), supported by the Nature’s Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

According to Sambazon, “Greenpeace claimed that açaí may be one of the best ways to "save the rainforest".â€Â  (http://sambazon.blogspot.com/2009/05/açaí-postitive-force-in-amazon.html)  While quoting slightly out of context, this is more or less true. Greenpeace actually said that while there is no one way to save the rainforest, the açaí industry, among others has the “potential to provide communities living in the forest with a sustainable means of incomeâ€. (http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/forests/solutions/amazon-case-study) Greenpeace also concludes that because of the açaí palms rapid growth and the large quantity of berries that each tree produces, açaí can be considered the Amazon’s most financially viable non-wood crop. Thus, Sambazon is correct in their statement that  “locals could earn more harvesting Açaí than clear-cutting the forest.â€

Company Profile: MonaVie

In contrast with the two other companies, MonaVie is sold through a multi-level business model, where customers buy the juice from a MonaVie sales representative. As well, MonaVie does not deal exclusively with açaí. Their blended beverage also contains other fruits and berries, such as grape, apple, blueberry, pear and banana. Thus, the açaí content is lower than that of other companies. However, the açaí in the juice is the most publicized and marketed.

The açaí berries in MonaVie are wild harvested, as are the other companies. However, Monavie is not Fair Trade or organic. This is a section from Monavie’s reply to my questions:

“We pay the harvesters substantially more to harvest the açai berry than they would otherwise to harvest the hearts of palm. Also, the education we have given to the harvesters of the hearts of palm has shown very beneficial results. Many of these harvesters have begun planting more açai trees when one has died. In this way we have contributed to the preservation of the rainforest and helped the economy in these regions.â€

MonaVie has also founded (and funds) “The MORE projectâ€, to “change lives and restore families through a variety of specific programs†in Brazil (http://www.themoreproject.org/). They focus on education and healthcare, and recruit volunteers to visit the region and help out. The website also features a store where the public can purchase products such as clothes, books, CDs, and jewellery made from açaí berry beads.

Company Profile: Genesis Today

Genesis Today’s “Açaí 100†is the pure juice. Unlike açaí juice blends such as MonaVie , “Açaí 100†contains no added sugar, water, other fruit juices, preservatives, flavours or sweeteners. Their products are available at most health food stores.

Unfortunately, Genesis today did not reply with information about their product or business practices, and there is only minimal information available on their website.

Is Açaí Worthwhile?

The verdict supplied by the companies is that açaí is a positive force in the Amazon. However, since this information comes straight from the companies themselves, its doubtful that it would be anything other than positive. Independent information is hard to come by, and even Greenpeace’s comments about açaí were from 2005, already out of date.

The World Wildlife Fund cited research conducted on Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs), such as açaí, in a recent report about the Amazon (http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wnf_amazonerapport_def.pdf). Although it was stated that NTFPs “provide the people inhabiting the forest with both a means for living as well as a cash income†and açaí has been successfully marketed, there were some disappointing results. For instance, Arnold and Perez (2001) as well as Kusters et al. (2006) refute the theory of a straightforward link between NTFPs and conservation. Instead, “extraction of NTFPs can cause forest degradation, especially if repeated harvesting occurs at close intervals. Demand for NTFP products is selective, which could lead to domestication and loss of diversity. NTFPs are mostly used to supplement diets in particular seasons, but generally do not represent a road to prosperity for poor communities, due among other things to the high transaction costs of marketing them.†Also to be considered is the problem of unpredictable markets, as trends like açaí come and go fleetingly (Belcher and Schreckenberg, 2007). Belcher and Schreckenberg (2007) also note that once a exported product like açaí becomes successful, domesticated and synthetic variations are created.

That being said, the question remains: is it possible to get açaí’s health benefits without the high price tag and food miles? Simply put: yes. Regardless of all the advertising and marketing hype, the same nutrients are found in many other foods. Essential fatty acids can be found in fish, flax oil and nuts, fibre can be found in psyllium and flax seeds, amino acids can be found in all protein sources, antioxidants can be found in pomegranate, blueberries and green/white tea, just to name a few. Cinnamon has even been shown to lower blood sugar levels and reduce cholesterol. Health food stores carry natural vitamins, herbs and remedies that don’t have to be shipped from the Brazilian rainforest, but provide the same effects.

However, it doesn’t seem like the little purple berry that everyone’s talking about will go away in the near future. As it’s difficult get a clear picture of the situation at this point in time, we may have to wait and see what happens in the future. As always, I encourage comments about this issue. And if you know something I don’t, I’d love to hear it!


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Leah
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Guest Brittany K.

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I've heard so much hype about these little berries lately, it's refreshing to read something that's a little more critical. Thanks Leah!

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Guest aed defibrillator

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Exploiting natures good harvest find can lead us to destruction of our own making. Better to minimize this exploitation and let nature do its part of providing us endless natural cure.

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Guest Açaí Mixers Brasil

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Excelente artigo que mostra a riqueza e o poder desta fantástica fruta. Convido a todos a conhecer toda nossa linha de produtos.

Informações nutricionais,receitas,distribuição e como comprar açai com muita qualidade.

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Guest Sean Bradford

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Hey, I actually had a friend just talk to me about distributing Monavie acai juice. This article was extremely informative and objective. Thanks!

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Guest under floor heating

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The process of composing the government’s 2008 NNI document provided a unique and useful opportunity for coordination, planning, and consensus-building among NEHI-member federal agencies.

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