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Wall Street Journal - Açaí Replaces Wheatgrass In Blenders at Juice Bars

Açaí Replaces Wheatgrass In Blenders at Juice Bars

By TATIANA BONCOMPAGNI


Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Sitting at a cafe table in a chic Manhattan fitness club, Kacy Duke takes a sip of a purplish-pink smoothie made with bananas, juices and açaí, a fruit from the Amazon that fans say helps boost energy and lower cholesterol. "This is good," says Ms. Duke, a personal trainer who drinks about six of them a week.

Wheatgrass, protein shakes -- so 2002. At juice bars and health stores around the country, the hip new taste is açaí, (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) a grape-size, deep-purple berry that grows atop palm trees in the Brazilian jungle. In the two years since it hit the U.S., sales have jumped fivefold to $2.5 million, says Ryan Black, founder of Sambazon, the fruit's main U.S. importer, while at Juice It Up, a California chain, açaí drinks and dishes account for 10% of sales. "People drive out of their way to get it," says Brandon Gough, the company's vice president of marketing. Even nonhealth types are catching on: Restaurants like Blue Door at Miami's Delano hotel are serving it with dinner entrées such as braised veal.

Fans say the fruit (which comes to the U.S. as frozen pulp) not only tastes good, but also is good for you -- packed with anthocyanins, the same antioxidants that give red wine its health benefits. And, in a hat trick of health-bar chic, it's good for the Amazon, too, because it's collected by local families who can earn as much as $1,000 during the December-to-August harvest season (twice as much as they can usually make). "It gives them income and another land use besides cutting down the trees and raising cattle," says Chris Kilham, who teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Of course, the fruit is just the latest exotic newcomer looking for a place in U.S. produce aisles -- remember the starfruit? And the açaí's newfound cachet would probably take a lot of Brazilians by surprise: There, açaí, whose taste has been likened to blueberry with a hint of chocolate, typically is eaten as a puddinglike mush over bananas for breakfast.

As to the health claims: "It is very nutritional," says Elisabetta Politi, a nutritionist with the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. "But I don't think it is this magical food." Don't tell that to Ms. Duke, who not only drinks the stuff, but also has mixed it into a homemade mask for her skin. "I thought because of all of the antioxidants, it would be good," she says. (The result: "I glowed," she says.)

But not everyone is an açaí fan. Some dessert chefs say the fruit doesn't work well with pastries, while other finicky smoothie-lovers say it makes for a watery-tasting drink. For some people, the fruit still may be too hip: Sam Gottlieb, head chef at Asia de Cuba restaurant in Los Angeles, has used the fruit on his all-inclusive tasting menu in everything from a red-wine reduction sauce (served over duck) to a variant on the floating-island dessert, but when he put it on the regular menu, no one bought. "People don't know what it is," he sighs.


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