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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek

MARCH 31, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 12

Fruits Of Contention
Noni craze gives new life to indigenous cure

By SANTHA OORJITHAM Kuala Lumpur


Chan Looi Tat for Asiaweek
The fresh fruit is a better anti-oxidant than all 10 noni products tested

Among the health fads to sweep Southeast Asia, one of the most ironic is the current appetite for noni products. That's what Polynesians call the fruit they're made from. Resembling a small breadfruit, noni comes from a hardy tropical shrub that grows with weed-like abandon from Tonga to Thailand. In multi-dialect Philippines, the plant is known variously as apatot, bungudo, bankoro or nino. Malaysians call it mengkudu.

Ancient healers in Polynesia used noni to treat cuts and other complaints, while elderly village folk in Malaysia ate the boiled leaves and fruit as a way to "cleanse the blood." The plant seemed useful as a traditional cure, but not something to set the world on fire - until a few years ago. These days, noni is touted as the next herbal panacea. To hear advocates describe it, the plant extracts can alleviate almost any ailment: gout, constipation, arthritis, fatigue, depression. Even life-threatening ones like diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer. And Asian consumers are snapping up noni products as never before.

 
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Yet for all the plant's indigenous roots, this is a craze that originated in America. A couple of U.S. food scientists heard about noni seven or so years ago, hooked up with a Hawaii-based biochemist studying the fruit, and decided there was commercial potential. They set up a company named Morinda Inc. (after morinda citrifolia, the botanical name of noni) and began to market the stuff through direct sales and on the Internet. Products include powder and cream, but the bulk of the business is in the form of mixed juice. Noni puree is usually combined with other juices because the unadulterated fruit tastes horrible. (The smell of the fully ripened fruit is sometimes likened to rotten cheese.)

According to proponents, noni contains a substance called proxeronine and the enzyme proxeronase. These react in the gut to form xeronine, an alkaloid which, they claim, aids cells function - and produces various therapeutic effects. While scientific evidence is limited, tales about noni's benefits have proliferated, spread by Web or word of mouth. But many doctors and scientists such as Vimala Subramaniam at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia remain skeptical. "I'd be cautious," says Vimala, noting that claims are based mainly on anecdotal cases rather than scientific studies.

Still, the stories may not be all hype. Vimala, who has analyzed the crude extracts from several indigenous plants, found that noni, among others, contains high levels of anti-oxidants. These compounds, she explains, help neutralize free radicals, the charged particles produced in metabolic processes that can damage genetic material and part of the immune system - increasing the risk of illnesses such as cancer. (Vimala warns, however, that "anti-oxidants are useful in prevention; they are not a cure.")

In the U.S., where Morinda and Nature's Sunshine Products are the two main companies selling noni juice, sales boomed on the back of so-called network marketing. Morinda has applied a similar technique in the Philippines, where sellers are required to buy a case of four 945-ml bottles of juice a month for about $150 (after signing a non-disclosure agreement about the deal). Each individual then recruits other distributors, from whom he or she gets a cut of subsequent sales. (The further down the distribution pyramid the sellers are, the less the original distributor gets.) A Manila doctor describes the rising thirst for noni products as a triumph of promotion. Of course, it also helps to have the public endorsement of local celebrities like Telly Albert-Zulueta, a veteran newspaper columnist, who credits noni with her son's continued remission from cancer.

Noni products are marketed as dietary supplements. Most governments ban distributors from making any claims about disease prevention or curative properties. But "the difficulty with [policing] products sold by direct sales is that we are not aware of what people tell their clients," says Dr. Anis Ahmad, a senior official in Malaysia's health ministry. Moreover, it's not difficult for companies to get round restrictions - usually by using testimonials from customers, some of whom become distributors themselves.

The tonic doesn't come cheap. For example, an ounce of concentrated noni extract sells for as much as $26 in the U.S. Morinda's 32-fluid-ounce (about 900 ml) bottle of Tahitian Noni juice costs more than $52 in Kuala Lumpur. For the Utah-based company, that added up to $300 million in worldwide sales last year. (Morinda declines to give figures for individual countries.) Such success has spurred commercial cultivation of the fruit in the region - and competitors such as Vegeta Health Foods in Malaysia, which offer cheaper alternatives. For example, it sells a 250-ml bottle of blackcurrant-noni juice for about $6.50. A Philippine company, Sol Y Viento Mountain Hot Spring Resort, also plans to join the fray.

But the best value for money is likely to be found in local produce markets. Vimala discovered that the fresh fruit was a better anti-oxidant than all the 10 noni products (including juices, pills and powder) that she tested. In Kuala Lumpur, hawkers, who often advise their customers to boil the leaves to make a health drink, sell the plant for a mere $6.50. Traditionally, Malaysians eat the boiled fruit with a chili-shrimp paste or make a kerabu, a kind of spicy salad, using the young leaves. Can a noni cookbook be next?

With reporting by RAISSA ROBLES Manila

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