Areca nuts (also referred to as betel nuts) are seeds of the Areca catechu. Originally found in southeast Asia, betel nuts have been widely used in Asia for many years, for social, religious and medicinal purposes. These nuts are often wrapped in betel leaves into a ‘betel quid’, and have many potential medical benefits. Do they outweigh the risks, though?
It’s thought that over 600 million people chew betel quid on a regular basis, and the practice has acquired sacred status in many cultures where it is widespread. In fact, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are the only psychoactive substances more common. Betel leaves have many potential health benefits, but depending on how it’s used, there are clear risks involved, too.
Characteristics & use
The betel vine (Piper betle) it comes from is a member of the pepper genus, which also contains the sedative plant kava (Piper methysticum). The leaf of the betel vine is valued for its stimulant effect, as well as for its various medicinal properties. However, it’s usually chewed along with areca nut or used in betel quid, both of which the American Cancer Society lists as carcinogenics.
History of betel use
Historical evidence indicates that betel leaf and areca nut have been chewed together for thousands of years. Skeletons dated to 3,000 BCE found in the Duyong cave in the Philippines bear evidence of betel chewing, and Indian texts dating to 504 BCE also document its use.
Cultural & traditional use of betel
Betel leaf is usually consumed as part of a betel quid: a bite-sized morsel of chopped areca nut and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), with the possible addition of tobacco, spices, and other supplementary ingredients, wrapped in betel leaf. The characteristic bright red saliva that accompanies betel quid chewing occurs due to the compound arecoline, which is contained within the areca nut.
In Vietnam, betel leaf and areca nut are prominent features in traditional wedding ceremonies and many other formal situations. In Papua New Guinea, where the preparation is known as buai, betel use is prolific and occurs on every street corner. The substance is prized for its ability to reduce stress and hunger and heighten awareness.
In India, where the quids are known as paan, chewing is an everyday occurrence and is an integral part of many social and ceremonial settings. Paan shops sell many different preparations, such as tambuki paan, with tobacco and spices, and meethi paan, a sweet concoction with coconut, preserved fruit and rose petals and various spices.
In folk medicine, betel quid chewing has been used as a remedy for bad breath, intestinal parasites, headaches and infections of the skin. It’s also believed to facilitate communication with the spirit world, and to strengthen social and sexual relationships.
How betel is prepared & sold
The production and sale of betel leaf varies according to locality. In Sri Lanka, betel farmers will typically sell their stock in wholesale quantities of 1,000 leaves, with the cost depending on quality and availability. In Malaysia, farmers often sell directly to the consumer, in bundles of ten leaves.
In Taiwan, uniquely throughout the betel-chewing world, betel preparations are sold in roadside booths by ‘betel nut beauties’: young women, often from impoverished backgrounds, who typically dress in revealing clothing. This phenomenon has provoked some controversy, and is largely incongruous with the more traditional practices that exist elsewhere.
In many betel-chewing regions, betel is purchased in the form of a prepared quid. These neatly- wrapped quids can often only be prepared by experienced, highly skilled individuals. In India, a maker of betel quids may be known as a paanwala, panwari or panwadi, depending on location.
Characteristics, distribution & habitat of betel
As a vine, betel requires a companion tree or similar support structure to grow. It is an evergreen perennial, with cordate (heart-shaped) or ovate leaves and stiff, white catkins (a type of flower structure with no petals, and flowers clustered tightly along a central stem).
The betel vine grows throughout South and Southeast Asia, and is also cultivated in Madagascar and some parts of the Caribbean. Betel flourishes in fertile, well-drained sandy clays or loams with a pH range of 5.6-8.2, and is typically found on higher land. It cannot tolerate salty or strongly alkaline soils, and prefers a mild tropical climate (15-40°C / 60 – 104°F) with high relative humidity (40-80%) and regular precipitation (2250-4750 mm per year).
Although most plants with catkin structures are monoecious, the betel vine has been demonstrated to be dioecious. The males typically exhibit ovate leaf structures, while females have cordate leaves.
How betel is cultivated
The betel vine is widely cultivated in plots known as barouj. Companion plants such as Agathi trees (Sesbania grandiflora)are first established and topped at a height of around four metres. Beds are then prepared for the vines themselves, which are approximately 180 cm wide. The vines are then placed roughly 45 cm apart.
Betel is propagated through vegetative means: Instead of planting seeds, stem cuttings are used. These are taken from the terminal points of the stems and are usually 30-45 cm in length. To cultivate one hectare of betel, 100,000 cuttings are required.
Once the cuttings have rooted and begun to grow, they’re trained to climb the support trees; typically, a banana fibre is used to fix the vine to the support trunk. This procedure is repeated once every 15-20 days for at least three months, at which point harvest can begin.
Some varieties and techniques may demand longer growing times, of six months to one year. Usually, harvest does not begin until the vines have reached 150 cm in height; in one year, some varieties may reach heights of 300 cm or more.
Betel vine is generally planted at the start of monsoon season and is harvested between November and February. Betel leaves are harvested by the lakh, a South Asian numerical unit that equates to 100,000: one hectare should yield 75-100 lakh of betel leaves (7.5-10 million leaves).
Effects & pharmacology of betel
Betel’s mild stimulant effect is thought to be caused by the action of a group of molecules belonging to the phenylpropanoid class of organic compounds. This large class of aromatic, lipid-based compounds includes many substances that are crucial to various systems and processes found in plants. It includes oily secretions and resins that attract pollinators, or protect against ultraviolet light and predation by animals or insects.
It’s worth noting that aromaticity in organic chemistry does not refer to true fragrance; rather, it refers to compounds that are based on a benzene ring (a molecular ‘ring’ of six carbon atoms joined by alternate double and single covalent bonds).
Thus, not all aromatic compounds have a discernible smell, although many do. Terpenes, on the other hand, are mostly strong-smelling and are at least partly responsible for the fragrance of many plants, including cannabis.
The essential oil that can be extracted from the leaves of the betel vine contains various phenylpropanoids. Several of these phenylpropanoids have been isolated and studied, including chavibetol and eugenol. The spicy-scented chavibetol is one of the principle constituents of betel oil, although some cultivars produce oil that is higher in the compound eugenol. It may also contain several terpenes.
The medicinal effects of betel are not fully understood. So far, it’s known that betel-leaf extract has antioxidant, antifungal and antibacterial properties, and as research continues, it’s likely that other potential benefits will be uncovered.
Betel-leaf extract as an anti-cancer agent
Various studies have suggested that betel-leaf extract (BLE) exerts a chemoprotective effect on animal tissue. A 2006 study into the effects of turmeric and BLE on oral cancers in hamsters found that tumour development was inhibited by BLE alone, and that the inhibitory effect was strengthened by the addition of turmeric.
In 2013, evidence that human cancer cell lines could be treated with BLE was published. In this study, growth of human prostate cancers implanted in mice was found to be significantly inhibited. Furthermore, liquid chromatography and mass spectroscopy testing revealed the presence of the compound hydroxychavicol as well as chavibetol; extracts higher in hydroxychavicol exerted a stronger inhibitory effect on tumour growth, indicating its status as the main anti-carcinogenic compound in BLE.
As well as hydroxychavicol, the compound eugenol has also been demonstrated to kill human colon cancer cell lines in vitro. Eugenol is also known to be a vasodilator (a substance that allows the blood vessels to dilate) and a smooth muscle relaxant.
Health risks of areca nut & tobacco quid
Areca nut (or betel nut), is the seed of the Areca palm (Areca catechu). It imparts a mild stimulant effect, similar to that of the betel leaf, as well as provoking sensations of bodily warmth and heightened alertness.
However, various studies have indicated that the nut contains carcinogenic compounds, and populations in which chewing is widespread have demonstrably higher prevalence of mouth and throat cancers. Media campaigns to raise awareness and push for controls on areca nut have now existed for several years and many articles, such as this article by the BBC, pushing awareness have been published.
Betel leaf is also seen being chewed in combination with tobacco. Research has demonstrated that tobacco contains specific N-nitrosamine compounds that are carcinogenic even when unburned, but whose mutagenic action is in fact suppressed by the anti-carcinogenic effect of betel leaf.
Despite the fact that betel leaf might suppress this cancer-causing effect of tobacco to some extent, it is strongly advisable to avoid chewing tobacco wherever possible. Chewing tobacco quid along with areca nut increases the nut’s carcinogenic effect further.
Much research is still needed to clarify exactly how to safely benefit from betel leaves and how the risks and benefits of the nut compare. According to WebMD Medically, even the nut can be helpful for glaucoma, improving digestion, reducing symptoms of schizophrenia and helping with the aftereffects of a stroke. But it’s also clear there may be a direct link to serious health dangers, as well.
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