The Human Costs Of Acai Products May Give You Pause Before Buying Your Next Bowl

That gorgeous purple-pink whirl that so many enjoy, either on a daily basis, as an indulgent treat, or as part of a spa package, may lose a bit of its luster if you read on. No, it still tastes as good as it always has, there’s been no recent report of contamination or food poisoning, and it’s just as good for you as it’s always been (that is, it’s good for you, but it’s not a “superfood”— no food or supplement is). Acai berries are harvested from acai palm trees, primarily in South America.

As is the case with many berries, such as blueberries and blackberries, acai contain antioxidants, some vitamins, and a bit of fiber. They are good for you. They will not, however, make your skin brighter, rid you of arthritis, nor cure your erectile dysfunction. Interestingly, if taken in concentrated pill form, the metallic ions (iron, mangenese, and copper) which naturally occur in these berries, may alter the results of a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI), due to the magnetic effects these substances may have on the materials used during this radiologic study. Just one more reason to take it easy on the so-called “superfood” supplements. Or better yet, to forego them overall.

But superfood hype aside, the really worrisome news about acai berries is not in the berries themselves, but in how they are harvested. A recent piece in The Washington Post explained how, because the 60-foot high acai palm trees have thin, tenuous trunks, climbing to the top to harvest the berries could not be performed by adults, for fear of the trees’ trunks snapping. In come the children, as young as 5-years-old, who are now well-known workers in family businesses harvesting and selling buckets of berries. Children are sent to climb these trees, knives in hand, to collect large branches filled with berries. Many of these buckets eventually make it to the United States, where the acai is processed, and later lands in your ten- to fifteen-dollar bowl or smoothie.

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There are no laws to protect the children harvesting this berry, known as “black gold” in Brazil. Many suffer, from minor and major injuries from falls, cuts from sharp palm fronds, knife injuries, and even abduction. A full basket of acai berries may earn a family $3.00. While several international organizations have sought to offer protection, auditing exporters and monitoring costs and fees for these families, as well as overseeing child labor, the acai business remains a risky one, with many more benefits to the consumer than to the provider.

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