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Scientist are working with noni, a mild-mannered Polynesian fruit, to validate centuries of traditional medicinal use

Walking along a beach in Hawaii a few years ago, I literally stumbled across what I thought was a bizarre looking fruit that reminded me of a translucent, white, fleshy, hand grenade. As my eyes wandered to the fresh fruit on the tree, I noticed that it had a peculiar fragrance, but the ripe fruits on the ground smelled—as one botanical writer 100 years ago put it—“like decaying cheese.” The strange fruit sparked my curiosity. I went back to my hotel room and researched the useful plants of Hawaii, only to discover the fruit was noni! I knew it was being touted as a “new herb,” yet dismissed it as one of many such latest-and-greatest cure-alls that sound too good to be true.

Still, having seen the strange fruit in the flesh, I became more curious about its origins. As I traveled, I began finding noni trees growing not only in Hawaii, but also in Trinidad, Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala and Vietnam. I learned that noni is a commonly planted tropical tree used primarily as an ornamental plant for its broad, bright green leaves, affording shade where it's needed. More important, however, the trees' peculiar tropical fruit was utilized by ancient Polynesian cultures for food, dye and medicinal purposes.
Origins of noni

Noni, the Hawaiian and Tahitian name for this small tree, is native to Southeast Asia, perhaps originating in Indonesia. Today it is found along the coastlines of many tropical regions. Noni's seeds have a bladder-like cavity within, making them extremely buoyant—able to stay afloat for months before reaching a distant shore suitable for gestation.

Older botanical literature refers to noni as “Indian mulberry,” though it is not related to the mulberry plant. Rather it is a member of the madder family (Rubiaceae) and is known to botanists as Morinda citrifolia.
Noni in traditional medicine

Traditional medicinal uses of noni are numerous and vary depending upon location and local needs of the people. In Malaysia, the ripe fruits were infused with water, then gargled for a sore throat. Charred, unripe fruits were applied with salt to treat gum conditions. The ripe fruit was used to provide external relief from carbuncles and painful boils and used internally to treat stomach ulcers.

Noni is still an important folk medicine on Samoa, according to a 1991 field study conducted by a German graduate student, Alexandra Dittmar. All parts of the tree are used. The fruits—either alone or in combination with other botanicals—are still used for treatment of diarrhea, worms, cough, tuberculosis, eye infections, fever with vomiting, sore throat with cough, thrush, abscesses and as a general tonic during sickness.

In 1945, a botanical writer noted that on several Pacific islands a decoction of mashed noni fruit, along with kava root and crushed sugar cane stems, was used as a treatment for tuberculosis. Noni fruit juice, diluted with water, was sometimes given to ceremony participants ingesting another Polynesian botanical, kava kava, to help reduce nausea.
The new noni

Noni is one of the most widely used herbs in Hawaii, second only to aloe vera, according to a 1999 survey on complementary medicine use in Hawaii carried out by researchers at the Department of Anthropology, University of Hawaii. Perhaps that is because noni is not a dietary supplement fad on the islands.

In Hawaii, noni is typically prepared by sealing the fruit in a glass jar and leaving it out in the sun for hours, or even weeks. During the fermentation process, it loses its odor and taste of the fresh-ripe fruits. The strained juice ferments into an alcoholic beverage and is taken as a general tonic.

The most common traditional use of noni in Hawaii is for treating cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. Its popularity in the 1990s led to its promotion for everything from kidney disorders to hypertension. This, in turn, led to a scarcity of trees—even private yards were stripped of their fruits overnight.

After passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, noni became widespread in the American market. Liquid, and recently encapsulated noni products have replaced the traditional noni concoctions.
The science behind noni

In recent years, scientists have begun to clinically validate noni's traditional use. An important animal study by G. Liu and colleagues found that two newly identified compounds in the juice of noni fruit were “effective in suppressing” the transformation of normal cells into cancerous pre-tumors.

A 1999 study by Hawaiian researchers found that a polysaccharide-rich compound from noni fruit juice markedly enhanced the survival time of laboratory mice with a specific type of cancer, Lewis lung carcinoma. Although it did not have a direct anti-cancer effect, researchers observed that noni holds back tumor growth through activation of the immune system.

At least three other studies with cell cultures or laboratory animals have shown positive anti-cancer effects. A 1990 study also found noni may have analgesic (pain-relieving) and sleep-inducing effects.

It's no wonder noni's popularity has increased. For it's many wonderful medicinal uses, noni has evolved from ancient healer to new world helper.
The many uses of Noni

Noni is a tree of many purposes. Its fruit is used as food, fodder, dye and medicine. Early Hawaiians and Polynesians ate the raw fruit. In today's Samoa and Fiji, noniis eaten both cooked and raw. As early as 1889, aborigines in Australia enjoyed the fruits. In modern Southeast Asia, the unripe fruits are cooked in curries; ripe fruits are eaten raw with salt, and the seeds are roasted and eaten. In Indonesia and Thailand, the very young, slightly bitter leaves are eaten with vegetables and rice, raw or cooked. The leaves have also been used as a food wrap for fish, then cooked and eaten with the fish In some parts of the world, the fruits and leaves are fed to livestock and used as feed for silkworms. In India, noni roots were used as commercial dye, before the development of petroleum-based synthetic dyes in the early 20th century.

PHOTO (COLOR): The many uses of Noni

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By Steven Foster

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