Betel nuts, or areca nuts, come from the areca palm tree, Areca catechu. It is not a true nut, however, but a drupe. The palm grows natively in China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and was introduced to different islands via voyagers. It is commercially grown in south Asia, India, and the Pacific tropics. It grows as an ornamental exotic palm tree in Florida and Hawaii. The areca nut goes by other names: betelnut palm, arecanut, betel palm, or betel-nut.
The Areca Palm Tree
The areca palm tree grows to 60 feet tall with a trunk about 6 inches in diameter producing pretty leaves, and both male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers. It grows well in areas of generous rainfall and lower altitudes. While it prefers shade, the ground can be anything from acidic to neutral, tolerating a variety of soil pH ranges. The palm trees are sensitive to extreme temperatures and wide daily temperature variances with little drought tolerance. While it likes rain, it doesn’t like waterlogged soil. The areca palm tree is propagated by seed.
Negative Health Benefits and Effects of Chewing Betel Nut
The betal nut is linked to oral and oesophageal cancer, gum damage, tooth decay and permanent discoloration of the teeth, heart palpitations, cardiovascular disease, squamous cell carcinoma, and vasoconstriction. For pregnant women who chew, low birth weight and early term pregnancies are higher.
Arecoline is the main alkaloid in the betel nut. Arecoline is nicotine acid-based, and is an odorless oily liquid. This alkaloid is what makes betel nut chewing a carcinogenic, causing cancer when chewed with or without tobacco. The betel nut also contains arecatannins, another carcinogenic. The alkaloids inside the betel seed are addictive.
Both the green and ripe fruit of the betel palm is chewed and used as a stimulant. Areca nut is the fourth most commonly used psychoactive substance in the world after tobacco, alcohol, and caffeinated beverages, and an estimated 600 million people worldwide chew betel nut regularly. The betel nut is sold as ready-for-chewing packets called ‘betel quid’, and where it is made will determine what is in each packet.
What is In a Betal Quid (Paan)
Betel nut for chewing is often sold in betel quids, or paan, and the packets will change depending on the customer base. A paan is chewed for its stimulant effects, and is either chewed and spat out, or chewed and swallowed. The polyphenols inside the betel nut are responsible for the astringent taste, and is the reason betel nut is often wrapped up in betel leaves with other components for flavor.
Generally speaking, each betel quid or paan will contain the areca nut (raw/roasted/boiled/fermented), the leaf from the Piper betle L. (betel leaf), slaked lime, sometimes tobacco (which increases the effects), catechu (extract from the acacia tree, for breath freshening properties), spices for flavor (cloves, aniseed, or cardamom), and sweeteners or essences for flavor (coconut, dried dates, mint, rose).
The betel leaf doesn’t come from the betel palm. The betel leaf comes from the vine of Piperaceae family, Piper betal. The betel leaf is a perennial evergreen vine that requires stakes for support as it grows.
IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans. Betel-quid and Areca-nut Chewing and Some Areca-nut-derived Nitrosamines. Lyon (FR): International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2004. (IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, No. 85.) Betel-quid and Areca-nut Chewing. Available from: (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK316574/).
Orwa C, A Mutua, Kindt R , Jamnadass R, S Anthony. 2009 Agroforestree Database:a tree reference and selection guide version 4.0 (http://www.worldagroforestry.org/sites/treedbs/treedatabases.asp).
Staples, G.W. and R.F. Bevacqua. 2006. Areca catechu (Betel nut palm), ver. 1.3. In: Elevitch, C.R. (ed.). Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry. Permanent Agriculture Resources (PAR), Holualoa, Hawaii. (www.traditionaltree.org).
“Traditional Pacific Island Crops: Betel Nut.” Key Web Resources for Betel Nut (Areca Catechu), University of Hawai’i at Manoa Library, 12 Sept. 2017, (guides.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/paccrops/betelnut).
Wikipedia contributors. “Betel.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Sep. 2017. Web. 25 Sep. 2017