Friday, May 27, 2011

Flavors of Brazil - Ahead of the Curve?

Last year, in this post, Flavors of Brazil commented on the increasing popularity in the Northern Hemisphere of an Amazonian fruit called açaí. Our point in that post was that even though the fruit was totally unknown outside Brazil until just a few years ago, it had suddenly begun to pop up everywhere - in health food stores, at Whole Foods and Whole-Foods clones, for sale online and by way of multi-level marketing schemes (MonaVie). Even if  scientific evidence did prove that the dark-purple berry with the earthy, almost dirt-like taste was at least somewhat nutritionally beneficial, super-extravagant claims were being made in the marketplace about açaí. It was being touted as a "superfood" and in various places was claimed to cure, among other things, obesity, attention-deficit disorder, autism, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and erectile dysfunction.

Flavors of Brazil asked in that post last year whether the hyping and marketing of açaí had "jumped the shark", that is to say, reached the point of ridiculousness. The spur for our question was Absolut Vodka's introduction of an açaí-flavored vodka. Well, what was news here at Flavors of Brazil back in 2010 has now become the topic of a very interesting article in the May 30 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Written by John Colapinto, the article is entitled Strange Fruit, and significantly subtitled The rise and fall of açaí.

Colapinto traces the rise of açaí over the course of the past quarter-century. Until the 1980s the berry of the açaí  palm was a food source only for riverside dwellers in the Amazonian rain forest. During the 80s and 90s the popularity of açaí spread first to the big southern cities of Brazil, like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and then to the rest of Brazil. Its move into the USA was largely the work of two brothers from Southern California, Ryan and Jeremy Black and a friend, Edmund Nicols. They had discovered the fruit while travelling in Brazil and thought there was a market for it in the USA. They began to export açaí to the USA in the early 2000s under the brand name Sambazon (from samba + Amazon). Today, Sambazon is the market leader in the USA in açaí products, with annual sales of around $50 million.

The article does ask the same question that Flavors of Brazil wondered about last year. As Colapino puts it, "the fruit has followed a cycle of popularity befitting a teen-age pop-singer, a Miley Cyrus-like trajectory from obscurity to hype, critical backlast, and eventual ubiquity." Trying to find out whether açaí had in fact now gone from boom to bust, Colapinto interviewed Karen Caplan, the C.E.O. of Frieda's, a Los Angeles firm that markets exotic fruits and vegetables, and which is responsible for the introduction, renaming and eventual enormous success of kiwi fruit. Ms. Caplan pointed out to Colapinto that all food products have a life cycle, and that it had taken twenty years for the kiwi to become a best-seller. Açaí has only been exported from Brazil for about half of that time. So does Ms. Caplan think that açaí is over? She says, "No way. I walk into a produce department and see five brands that have açaí in it. And I go to the nutritional stores and I see supplements and a big banner saying 'Açaí' Then I say, O.K. it's starting to get mainstream."

1 comment:

  1. Very nice and interesting blog, thanks for this's been great reading this.

    Malegra DXT