Acai Berry Boom

Fresno The "acai" berry is cultivating a multi-billion-dollar juice industry.

Blueberries, grapes, pomegranates oh my! These fruits pack powerful nutrients and antioxidants which protect the body's cells from damage and disease. But there's a new berry in town.

Earlier this month, Doctor Oz featured the acai berry on the Oprah show. The berry, found only in the Amazon rainforest, was part of his "ultimate anti-aging checklist."

"It has twice the antioxidants as a blueberry," claims Dr. Oz.

"Monavie" is an acai berry juice blend sold by independent distributors like Randy Woodward of Fresno.

"You can just drink two ounces in the morning and two at night. And four ounces is equivalent to 14 fruits a day," says Woodward.

The juice tastes like a mix of chocolate and blackberries but the cost is not so sweet. A $35 bottle lasts a week. That's four bottles a month, $140/month and $1680/year!

"I can't put a price on health. Somebody tells me I can be healthy for the rest of my life for $5 a day, I'm in, I'm going to do it," says Woodward.

Woodward quit his job to sell Monavie full time. After only a year selling it, he's now on track to earn an annual income of $96,000. Woodward says at least 900 people in the valley are signed up now because of him. He gets a percentage of their sales, but don't call it a pyramid!

"I would never get involved in a pyramid. That's the first thing I thought too, it's a pyramid." One of his first customers and skeptics was his cousin Barbara. She tried the juice after she had surgery.

"It was like my recovery kicked into high gear. I had all this energy, got my strength back, taking my long walks," says Barbara Woodward.

The Monavie Company is careful not to make any outright health or cure claims. The FDA won't allow it. Still thousands of people swear by the stuff for everything from joint pain to a better night's sleep.

Kaiser Permanente Registered Dietician Judy Meadows says there may be a simple explanation for all the glowing testimonials. "I think it's because they're getting the nutrients their body needs, and if they had been eating fruits and vegetables they could have that same feeling. But it's an easy quick way of doing it. You can get that in other foods that don't cost as much."

That's a fundamental concept at Jamba Juice. The fruit smoothie specialists launched an acai berry drink on their menu three years ago.

Paul Coletta, Jamba Juice, says "The acai berry has really gained in popularity due in a large part to a lot other companies that have helped mainstream it."

Countless beverage companies are getting in on the acai berry craze. The latest to join the market: Campbell's V-8 fusion line is launching this acai mixed berry drink this spring for about $4 a bottle.

The acai boom is not showing any signs of slowing, especially if Randy Woodward has anything to do with it. "Get it out there, yeah. I tell everybody. I'll be in a restaurant. UPS guy, it doesn't matter who it is. I just want to tell them 'Hey listen, here!'"

A 2006 study by the University of Florida showed the antioxidants in acai killed leukemia cells in a laboratory. The University is now conducting research on humans.

Cosmetic companies are also exploring the beauty benefits, for example Herbal Essences "color me happy" shampoo and conditioner use acai to prevent fading. But dermatologists say high concentrations could stain skin and hair.

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