Betel nut, the dried fruit of the areca palm, often referred to as binglang in China, is enjoyed by people in some parts of China as it is in many parts of Asia and the Pacific. The fresh areca nut is chewed, sometimes wrapped in betel leaf or with tobacco and often mixed with lime, which helps bring out the active ingredients. . [Source: Dan Levin for The New York Times, August 19, 2010 ***]
People that chew it say its sets the nervous system buzzing and warms the body, especially after a large banquet. “It helps with digestion and sobers you up, Xie Shuo, a cellphone repairman who said he consumed 100 pods a day, told the New York Times. His smile revealed blackened gums and stained teeth, an unsightly side effect of chewing the fruit. “I’m addicted to binglang, but I really love it so it not a problem,” he said. ***
According to traditional Chinese medicine, betel nut aids digestion, removes plaque and expels worms. Many Chinese prefer to eat just the preserved husk, which seems to deter the fruit carcinogenic effects, according to recent studies. But local dentists and doctors denounce the practice, saying it can cause other mouth diseases.
Betel Nut Capital of China
Xiangtan, a city of one million residents in in Hunan Province, is China’s leading commercial producer of binglang. Its manufacturers import the fresh ingredients, mostly from the island province of Hainan, and sell the dried husks across Hunan and to a lesser extent elsewhere. The $1.18 billion industry employs more than 100,000 people in Xiangtan County. No wonder the city government has asked for the area seven factories and nearly 50 workshops to increase production to keep the local economy humming through the global financial crisis. But the addictive treat has a downside, ruining mouths when chewed and soiling sidewalks when spat out. [Source: Dan Levin for The New York Times, August 19, 2010 ***]
Li Xuejun 46, a binglang manufacturer who named his brand Enormous Blessing. His grandmother fondness for the desiccated fruit inspired him to break into the business in the mid-1990s, and he now sells $410,000 of binglang annually, employing 200 people. Sales have grown about 50 percent a year, he said, which he attributes to heavier advertising and more children taking up the habit of chewing binglang in mint, cinnamon and orange flavors. ***
With a cigarette hanging from his lips and binglang shells crunching between his molars, Li lounged in the back room of a restaurant here and extolled the virtues of the plant that has showered the city with jobs and sport utility vehicles and has sent its children to top universities. ***
Hunan love affair with binglang began more than 300 years ago, when, according to local lore, a magistrate promoted it as a cure for a plague that was sweeping the region. During China economic reforms of the early 1980s, Xiangtan began turning the pastime into profit, and these days processes more than 700 tons each year, according to the Hunan Binglang Association. The city fathers speak of binglang as if it were a panacea for all of Xiangtan ills, from curing tapeworm to solving unemployment. ***
Betel Nut Chewers in China
The residents are also big time chewer. Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “If the residents of this city seem a bit lively on even the hottest days or most frigid nights, check their mouths. That minty scent and cracking sound come from a fragrant pick-me-up that men, women and even children chew from breakfast until bedtime.” [Source: Dan Levin for The New York Times, August 19, 2010 ***]
Experts affiliated with the World Health Organization estimate that 80 percent of Xiangtan residents chew binglang. Many start around 10 years old, picking up the habit from parents who believe that it has powerful health benefits. “Binglang has helped Xiangtan make a name for itself, said Li Lihua, 60, a veteran chewer of 40 years who sells bags of binglang for 75 cents each. “It like chewing gum but stronger, plus it kills parasites. ***
Standing outside a boisterous arcade, Pan Bozhe, 24, was gleefully chewing some Big Brother binglang during a visit home from Guangdong Province, where he works as an electronics salesman. “I really miss this stuff the rest of the year, since they don’t sell it in Shenzhen,” he said, his jaw working furiously. So whenever I come back to Xiangtan I chew as much as I can.” ***
Local medical experts have long been nudging the Xiangtan government to make binglang safer. Tang Jieqing, the vice director of the Xiangtan Stomatological Hospital, who has studied the area binglang habits for more than 10 years, believes that rates of mouth diseases like oral submucous fibrosis are higher in Xiangtan than elsewhere in China, and he wants the government to publicize binglang health risks. ***
“While the local government set a production standard in 2004, to be honest, it hasn’t been very supportive in a practical way, Dr. Tang said, citing the lack of package warnings or other consumer information. Noting the industry economic value, he added, our government can be supportive of binglang, but one should never say that it very healthy. ***
Betel Nut in Taiwan
Betel nut is so popular in Taiwan that it has been dubbed "Taiwanese chewing gum." It is Taiwan’s No. 2 cash crop after rice. An estimated 2.4 million Taiwan citizens regularly chew betel nut (10.9 percent of the population, compared to 9.9 percent in 1995 and 9 percent in 1991).
Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Taiwan's indigenous peoples have been chewing betel nuts for thousands of years. Archaeologists have excavated human teeth at 4,000-year-old dig sites near Kenting (at the southern tip of Taiwan) that were found to contain trace deposits of betel nut; the way the teeth were damaged is consistent with abrasion caused by modern betel nut chewing. Furthermore, ancient relics associated with indigenous tribes confirm the acorn-sized betel nut played an important cultural role for almost as long as people have inhabited Taiwan. Lavaus, a member of the Paiwan tribe, is unequivocal about the betel nut's place in modern Paiwan society. "Betel nuts are the most important things in our lives," she says. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, February 2008]
Betel nut is indigenous to Taiwan. It is particularly popular with truck drivers, construction workers and laborers who are given a lift by the drug’s stimulating affect. In Taiwan, betel nuts are slit open and filled with a lime paste; then a betel leaf (from an unrelated plant, the evergreen Piper betle) is wrapped around the nut. They are usually purchased at roadside stalls in bags or boxes of 20.
Most betel is sold at around 50 US cents a piece or $1.50 for a box of five at street-side stands that can rake in over $10,000 a month. The flourishing business has brought about more competition, lower sales and lower profits. To attract customers some stands have hired female vendors in miniskirts. Some stands are even covers for prostitution.
A traditional Amis tribe song goes:
Once a betel nut bag is worn
Once an elder wears a betel nut bag
What do you find inside?
Betel nut and betel leaf
And what can you do with these?
The elders use them to brush their teeth.
Betel Nut Traditions in Taiwan
Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Betel nut chewing is a particularly important part of the lives of indigenous people in the southern and eastern parts of Taiwan. Users get hooked on betel nuts because of the tobacco-like buzz and hot sensation they bring, effects that keep users warm in cold weather and alert so long as they are chewing. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, February 2008 ~]
“In former times, indigenous elders could often be seen chatting around a table with a bamboo basket filled with betel nuts, betel leaves and lime paste as the centerpiece. In mid-conversation, whoever felt like having a chew would pick up a betel nut, slit it, fill it with lime paste, wrap it and enjoy. Although these days most betel nuts are pre-wrapped and prepackaged, elders can still occasionally be seen engaging in this ritual. ~
“Traditionally, indigenous women were bigger users of betel nuts than men. In addition to its stimulant effects, women were lured to chew betel nuts because the juice would stain their lips a pretty red hue. For indigenous people, an offering of betel nuts expresses welcome and acceptance. It is usually the first thing they present or exchange at a gathering. At weddings for many of Taiwan's tribes, betel nuts are seen as an auspicious symbol of union and fertility. Presenting them to the parents of the prospective bride is considered mandatory. According to Yami tradition, once a woman becomes pregnant, if her husband dreams of betel nuts, the newborn will be a girl. If he dreams of a betel plant, it will be a boy. ~
“Among Puyuma tribespeople, many of whom continue to take part in traditional rituals, betel nuts are seen as powerful medicine if blessed by shamans and lethal poison if cursed by them. Other parts of the betel palm also play a role in indigenous culture and beliefs. For instance, the juice derived from betel hearts--the core of a betel palm located in the upper third of the tree--is considered to be an effective home remedy. ~
Growth and Decline of Bet Nut in Taiwan
Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Before the late 1960s, the economic value of betel nuts in Taiwan was marginal. But both production and consumption grew rapidly through the 1970s until 1998, when overall production reached a peak value of NT$141.5 billion (US$4.2 billion). In 1990, it became the second largest cash crop in Taiwan after rice. Despite a recent falloff in production, it retains second spot. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, February 2008 ~]
“According to research conducted in the 1990s at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology (NPUST), as demand increased, farmers rushed to supply the burgeoning market. Bosses handed out the stimulant freely to blue-collar workers in the 1970s to increase productivity as Taiwan's labor-intensive economy gained momentum. As demand increased, rice farmers found betel nuts to be easier to cultivate than rice, and they began converting rice paddies into betel nut plantations. During the 1980s democracy movement, betel nut chewing became a symbol of Taiwanese identity and more people took up the habit. ~
“As evidence mounted identifying betel nut chewing as the single largest cause of oral cancer in Taiwan, the government launched its first national anti-betel nut chewing campaign in 1994. Nevertheless, consumption continued to climb even as successive campaigns raised awareness of the problem. But cumulative efforts have gained traction. By 2006, betel nut production had declined 30 percent from the 1998 peak. “~
Problems with Betel Nut in Taiwan
Betel nut has been blamed for unsightly red spit stains on the sidewalls and streets, floods and health problems. The incidents of mouth cancer have increased ten-fold in the last two decades. Betel nut trees were blamed for mudslides and flash floods that killed nearly 100 people during a typhoon. The areas where the disasters occurred were in mountains, whose slopes had been planted with betel nut palms, whose shallow roots did not hold the soil or prevent erosion like grasses, shrubs and trees do. There were also disastrous landslides on slopes planted with betel palms during earthquake in 1999.
Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Clinical observation confirms the scientific analysis. "About 88 percent of those who suffer from oral cancer in Taiwan are betel nut chewers," says Wu Chien-yuan, a Department of Health (DOH) division chief. She estimates that at least 1.5 million Taiwanese chew betel nuts on a regular basis, putting themselves at a much higher cancer risk than nonusers. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, February 2008 ~]
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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated July 2015