You can't browse the Internet without running across at least one: giant banner ads touting miraculous weight-loss and cure-all elixirs made from the exotic South American açai berry. This staple of the Amazon, a small blueberry-like fruit that has a taste resembling a mix of berries and chocolate, has been the focus of get-rich-quick pyramid schemes that have purportedly made some people millionaires. While some extol the virtues of the expensive fruit juice, others say it's all one big scam. Is this "miracle berry" worth the hype?

Harvested from palm trees and exported as a deep blue-purple pulp, açai (pronounced "ah-sigh-ee") turned into a $13.5 million enterprise virtually overnight after publicity on the Oprah Winfrey Show spurred a huge increase in sales. Two of Oprah's experts, dermatologist Dr. Nicholas Perricone and heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, called açai one of the most nutritious and powerful fruits in the world.

Aware of its money-making potential, companies like MonaVie began extolling the supposed double-bonus of açai: getting healthy and getting rich. MonaVie, packaged in wine bottles, sells for about $40 a pop through independent salespeople who pitch the juice to friends, family, colleagues and anyone who will listen in the hopes of making a commission. The company claims to have made dozens of salespeople into millionaires and counts Daytona 500 champ Geoff Bodine and Viacom CEO Summer Redstone among its outspoken converts. Redstone, 85, even goes so far as to say that he believes the juice will help him live another half century.

Açai's reputation as a superfood that cures illnesses, prevents cancer and aids weight loss has proven to be an excellent way to part consumers from their money. Online scams proliferate, with fraudulent "free trials" and multilevel marketing schemes requiring steep sign-up fees and charging up to $90 per bottle.

As açai popularity hit a high point in 2006, researchers began to study its nutritional benefits to separate fact from fiction. A study by the University of Florida showed that antioxidants in açai extract destroyed human cancer cells. Stephen Talcott, an assistant professor with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said the açai extract triggered a self-destruct response in 86 percent of the leukemia cells tested.

"Acai berries are already considered one of the richest fruit sources of antioxidants," Talcott said. "This study was an important step toward learning what people may gain from using beverages, dietary supplements or other products made with the berries."

A 2008 follow-up study -- the first involving people -- by a team of Texas AgriLife Research scientists showed that the antioxidants in açai berries are readily absorbed by the human body. For the clinical trial, 12 healthy volunteers consumed a single serving of açai juice or pulp. Blood and urine samples at 12 and 24 hours after consumption showed significant increases in antioxidant activity in the blood. Future studies will determine whether açai has true disease-fighting benefits, as well as appropriate serving sizes for a beneficial dose. Weight loss claims about açai have not been verified.

It's clear that açai berries have health-giving properties — but is the juice really worth the astronomical fees being charged by some companies? Experts say no. Joshua Bomser, an assistant professor of molecular nutrition and functional foods at the Ohio State University, says familiar produce items like blueberries, grapes, guava and mangoes have similar properties and are less expensive.

Oz confirmed to ABC that açai isn't necessarily any better than other antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables.

"Açai is a powerful antioxidant," Oz said. "Colorful dark foods like red wine, pomegranates, concord grapes, blueberries — they call them brain berries — are full of nutrients. Açai seems to be as good as any other [good food], not better."

Many people will find that the taste of açai is reason enough to add it to their diets, though they may not see any dramatic changes in health. If you're eager to give it a try, here's a tip that could save you some cash: The açai juice sold for $10 a bottle at your local health-food store is likely just as good as the bottle your neighbor is aggressively hawking for four times as much. 

(MNN homepage photo: Brasil2/iStockphoto)