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An areca nut bunch hanging from the palm.
Photo of a ripe areca nut.
Areca nuts wrapped in Betel leaves, appearing as they are commonly prepared and sold in Taiwan

The Areca nut is the seed of the Areca palm (Areca catechu), which grows in much of the tropical Pacific, Asia, and parts of east Africa. It is commonly but perhaps erroneously referred to as "Betel Nut."

Contents

Description

The areca nut is not a true nut but rather a drupe. It is commercially available in dried, cured and fresh forms. While fresh, the husk is green and the nut inside is so soft that it can easily be cut with an average knife. In the ripe fruit the husk becomes yellow or orange and, as it dries, the fruit inside hardens to a wood-like consistency. At that stage the areca nut can only be sliced using a special scissor-like cutter (known as AdaKitta (अडकित्ता) in Marathi, Jati in Bengali, Sarota in Hindi, Paakkuvetti in Malayalam, Adake kattari in Kannada, Paakkuvetti in Tamil and Aḍakattera in Telugu, "sudi" in Gujarati, "Giraya" in Sinhala).

Usually for chewing, a few slices of the nut are wrapped in a Betel leaf along with lime and may include clove, cardamom, catechu (kattha), etc. for extra flavouring. Betel leaf has a fresh, peppery taste, but it can be bitter depending on the variety, and this is called "Thamboolam" in Sanskrit, "Tamul" in Assamese, "Paan (पान)" in Bengali and Hindi, Marathi. or 'murukkan' in kerala

Areca nuts are chewed with betel leaf for their effects as a mild stimulant,[1] causing a mild hot sensation in the body and slightly heightened alertness, although the effects vary from person to person. The effect of chewing betel and the nut is relatively mild and could be compared to drinking a cup of coffee. The areca nut contains tannin, gallic acid, a fixed oil gum, a little terpineol, lignin, various saline substances and three main alkaloids: Arecoline, Arecain and Guvacine which have vasoconstricting properties.[2] The betel leaf chewed along with it contains eugenol, also a vasoconstrictor. Many chewers also add small pieces of tobacco leaf to the mixture, thereby adding the effect of the nicotine, which causes greater addiction than the drugs contained in the nut and the betel.

In China, East and North-East India areca nuts are not only chewed along with betel leaf but are also used in the preparation of Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese medicines. Powdered areca nut is used as a constituent in some tooth powders. Other medicinal uses include the removal of tapeworms and other intestinal parasites by swallowing a few teaspoons of powdered areca nut, drunk as a decoction, or by taking tablets containing the extracted alkaloids.

Tradition

Display of the items usually included in a chewing session. The betel leaves are folded in different ways according to the country and have mostly some calcium hydroxide daubed inside. Slices of the dry areca nut are on the upper left hand and slices of the tender areca nut on the upper right. The pouch on the lower right contains tobacco, a relatively recent introduction.
Betelnut-cutter from Bali/Indonesia
Areca nut and betel leaf consumption in the world.

Chewing the mixture of areca nut and betel leaf is a tradition, custom or ritual which dates back thousands of years from South Asia to the Pacific. It constitutes an important and popular cultural activity in many Asian and Oceanic countries, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, Laos, the Maldives and Vietnam. It is not known how and when the areca nut and the betel leaf were combined together into one psychoactive drug. Archaeological evidence from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines suggests that they have been used in tandem for four thousand years or more.[3]

In Vietnam, the areca nut and the betel leaf are such important symbols of love and marriage that in Vietnamese the phrase "legend of betel and areca" (chuyện trầu cau) is synonymous with marriage. The tradition of chewing areca nuts starts the talk between the groom's parents and the bride's parents about the young couple's marriage. Therefore the leaves and juices are used ceremonially in Vietnamese weddings. The folk tale explaining the origin of this Vietnamese tradition is a good illustration of the belief that the combination of areca nut and the betel leaf is ideal to the point that they are practically inseparable, like an idealized married couple.[1]

Malay culture and tradition hold betel nut and leaves in high esteem. Traditionally, guests who visits a Malay house are given a tray of betel nuts and betel leaves, the same way as one offering drinks to guests now. There's even a Malay proverb about the betel nut, "bagaikan pinang dibelah dua", loosely translated, like a betel nut divided in half. It usually refers to newlyweds, who are compatible to each other, just like a betel nut when divided in half. The Proverb is closely analogous to the contemporary "two peas in a pod".

In the Indian Subcontinent the chewing of betel and areca nut dates back to the pre-Vedic period Harappan empire.[2] Formerly in India and Sri Lanka it was a custom of the royalty to chew Areca nut and betel leaf. Kings had special attendants carrying a box with the ingredients for a good chewing session. There was also a custom to chew Areca nut and betel leaf among lovers because of its breath-freshening and relaxant properties. Hence there was a sexual symbolism attached to the chewing of the nut and the leaf. The areca nut represented the male and the betel leaf the female principle. Considered an auspicious ingredient in Hinduism, the Areca nut is still used along with betel leaf in religious ceremonies and also while honoring individuals in most of Southern Asia.

In Assam it is a tradition to offer Pan-tamul (Betel leaves and raw areca nut) to guests after tea or meals in a brass plate with stands called a Bota. Among the Assamese the areca nut also has a variety of uses during religious and marriage ceremonies, where it has the role of a fertility symbol. A tradition from Upper Assam is to invite guests to wedding receptions by offering a few areca nuts with betel leaves. During Bihu, the husori players are offered areca nuts and betel leaves by each household while their blessings are solicited.

Spanish mariner Álvaro de Mendaña reported how the Solomon Islanders were chewing the nut and the leaf with caustic lime that stained their mouths red. He noticed that friendly and genial chief Malope in Santa Isabel Island was offering him the stuff as a token of friendship every time they met.[4]

The adding of tobacco leaf to the chewing mixture is a relatively recent introduction, for tobacco was introduced from the American continent in colonial times.

Effects on health

Areca nut vendor with red mouth from areca consumption preparing betel leaves and lime

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regards the chewing of betel and areca nut to be a known human carcinogen.[3] The media has reported that regular chewers of betel leaf and areca nut have a higher risk of damaging their gums and acquiring cancer of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus and stomach. [4], [5]. Studies have found tobacco and caustic lime increase the risk of cancer from areca nut preparations.[6][7]

Studies exist of the use of a "pure" paan preparation: areca nut, betel leaf, and lime. One study found that unprocessed areca nuts, at high doses, displayed a very weak carcinogenicity.[8] In contrast, since 1971 many studies have found areca nut extracts to cause cancer in rodents.[5] In 2003 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reached the conclusion that there is sufficient evidence that the habit of chewing betel quid with or without tobacco is carcinogenic to humans.[9] Support is provided by a recent study which found that paan without tobacco is a risk factor for oral cancer. They found paan with and without tobacco increased oral cancer risk by 9.9 and 8.4 times respectively.[6]

Chewing areca nut alone has been linked to oral submucous fibrosis.[7]

According to Medline Plus, "Long-term use has been associated with oral submucous fibrosis (OSF), pre-cancerous oral lesions and squamous cell carcinoma. Acute effects of betel chewing include asthma exacerbation, hypertension, and tachycardia. There may be a higher risk of cancers of the liver, mouth, esophagus, stomach, prostate, cervix, and lung with regular betel use. Other effects can include a possible effect on blood sugar levels, possibly increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Regular betel chewing causes the teeth and gums to be stained orange/red, a color that was formerly considered attractive in certain cultures. In Telugu poetry the slightly red-stained lips of a young woman chewing areca nut and betel are considered a mark of beauty. It is believed that regular chewing reduces the incidence of cavities, and toothpastes were once produced containing betel extracts. However, the increase in mouth ulcers and gum deterioration caused by areca nut and betel chewing may outweigh any positive effects.

Use of areca nut has been associated with deterioration of psychosis in patients with preexisting psychiatric disorders [8]

According to traditional Ayurvedic medicine chewing areca nut and betel leaf is a good remedy against bad breath (halitosis).[9]

Vernacular names

Areca nut output in 2006
19th century drawing of the Areca palm and its nut.
An Areca nut sapling form Indian state of Kerala. This one is a dwarf variety.

Places like Guwahati (গুৱাহটী) in Assam (অসম), Penang in Malaysia, Ko Mak (เกาะหมาก) in Thailand and Fua Mulaku in Maldives have been named after the areca nut.

Modern day consumption

Shopkeeper making Paan in an Indian store

In India (the largest consumer of areca nut) and Pakistan the preparation of nut with or without betel leaf is commonly referred to as paan. It is available practically everywhere and is sold in ready-to-chew pouches called "Pan Masala" or supari, as a mixture of many flavors whose primary base is areca nut crushed into small pieces. Pan Masala with a small quantity of tobacco is called gutka. The easily-discarded small plastic supari or gutka pouches are an ubiquitous pollutant of the South Asian environment. Some of the liquid in the mouth is usually disposed of by spitting, producing bright red spots which are highly visible in the streets. Trails of those red stains lining the sidewalks in India and Sri Lanka are a sure indication of the popularity of betel chewing in an area. The Shimoga District in Karnataka is presently the largest producer of betelnut in India.

In the Maldives areca nut chewing is very popular, but spitting is frowned upon and regarded as an unrefined, gross way of chewing. Usually people prefer to chew thin slices of the dry nut, which is sometimes roasted. "Kili", a mixture of areca nut, betel, cloves, cardamom and sugar is sold in small home-made paper pouches. Old people who have lost their teeth keep "chewing" by pounding the mixture of areca nut and betel with a small mortar and pestle.

In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, fresh areca nut, betel leaf or 'fruit leaf' ("daka" in PNG) and lime are sold on street corners. In these countries, dried or flavoured areca nut is not popular. Areca nut chewing has recently been introduced into Vanuatu where it is growing in popularity, especially in the northern islands of the country. In Guam, betel and areca nut chewing is a social pastime as a means to extend friendship, and can be found in many, if not most, large gatherings as part of the food display.

"Betel nut beauty" on the road between Taipei and Hsinchu.

In Taiwan, bags of 20 to 40 areca nuts are purchased fresh daily by a large number of consumers. To meet the steady year-round demand, there exist two kinds of betel-nut shops, each of which sells cigarettes and drinks including beer in addition to their primary purpose of supplying betel and nuts. On one hand, there are small mom and pop shops that are often poorly maintained and often do not stand out from other stores nearby. On the other hand, the second provides a sight unique to Taiwan. Such a shop often consists of nothing more than a single free-standing room, or booth, elevated one meter above the street that measures less than 3 meters by 2 meters. Large picture windows comprise two or more of the walls, allowing those who pass by a complete view of the interior. The interior is often painted brightly. Within such a shop, a sexily dressed young woman can be seen preparing betel and areca nuts (see "Betel nut beauty"). Shops are often identified by multicolored (commonly green) fluorescent tubes or neon lights that frame the windows or that are arranged radially above a store. Customers stop on the side of the road and wait for the girls to bring their betel and areca nut to their vehicles.

In Hainan, China, a wide range of old and young people seem to consume areca nut daily. Most however, consume the dried variety of the nut by itself, without the betel leaves. Some people also consume the aruca nut in its raw, fresh form with or without the betel leaves. Betel nuts are sold mostly by old women walking around trying to sell it, but the dried version can be found in most shops where they sell tea, alcohol and cigarettes.

In Thailand the consumption of areca nut has declined gradually in the last decades. The younger generation rarely chews the substance, especially in the cities. Most of the present-day consumption is confined to older generations, that is mostly people above fifty. Even so, small trays of betel leves and sliced tender arecanut are sold in markets and used as offerings in Buddhist shrines.

In the Philippines, chewing the areca nut and betel leaf was a very important tradition in the past. Nowadays this tradition is almost dead among the urban people in the cities and big towns who consider that it is against the general trend of being westernized. Except in some small towns, chewing betel has largely been replaced by chewing gum and cigarettes.

In the United States, areca nut is not a controlled or specially taxed substance and may be found in some Asian grocery stores. However, importation of areca nut in a form other than whole or carved kernels of nuts can be stopped at the discretion of US Customs officers on the grounds of food, agricultural, or medicinal drug violations. Such actions by Customs are very rare. In the United Kingdom areca nut is readily available in Asian grocery stores and even in shredded forms from the World Food aisles of larger Tesco supermarkets.

See also

References

  1. ^ Gupta Prakash Chandra, Ray Cecily S (July 2004). "Epidemiology of betel quid usage". Ann. Acad. Med. Singap. 33 (4 Suppl): 31–6. PMID 15389304. http://www.annals.edu.sg/pdf200409/V33N4p31S.pdf. 
  2. ^ Modern herbal
  3. ^ Archaeological evidence from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.
  4. ^ Graves, Robert (1984), Las islas de la imprudencia, Barcelona : Edhasa. ISBN 84-350-0430-9
  5. ^ K,, Suri; Goldman HM, Wells H. (1971-04-09). "Carcinogenic Effect of a Dimethyl Sulphoxide Extract of Betel Nut on the Mucosa of the Hamster Buccal Pouch". Nature. doi:10.1038/230383a0. PMID 4927728 doi:{{{id}}}. |url=|format=|accessdate=2008-10-23 }}
  6. ^ A., Merchant; Husain SS, Hosain M, Fikree FF, Pitiphat W, Siddiqui AR, Hayder SJ, Haider SM, Ikram M, Chuang SK, Saeed SA. (2000-04-01). "Paan without tobacco: an independent risk factor for oral cancer.". International Journal of Cancer. PMID 10728606. 
  7. ^ Maher, R.; Maher R, Lee AJ, Warnakulasuriya KA, Lewis JA, Johnson NW. (1994-02-23). "Role of areca nut in the causation of oral submucous fibrosis: a case-control study in Pakistan.". Journal of oral pathology and medicine. PMID 8164155. 
  8. ^ Ernst E, "Harmless Herbs? A Review of the Recent Literature", The American Journal of Medicine 104 (1998) p170.
  9. ^ Naveen Pattnaik, The Tree of Life

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