Betel Nut - Myths and Facts
What is that stuff which makes your mouth red?

by Herman (2001)

According to the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica betel is chewed on a regular basis by around 10% of the world’s population. Most of those enjoying this exotic treat live in southern Asia and the Pacific, the tropical Austronesian world where the habit seems to have originated. With so many people enjoying betel nut it astonishes that so little is known about this intriguing practice. Betel should be listed with coffee, cigarettes and alcohol…!

Betel chewing is little understood, and most regular travellers to Sabah are blissfully ignorant of this socially important component. At best I am asked: “Isn’t that the stuff that makes black teeth?” Indeed, a first time encounter with someone ‘bleeding’ red juice from the mouth provokes mixed reactions, from astonishment over wonder to repugnance. The sight of someone spurting a fat squash of red juice onto the road or into a dubious spittoon in a village home is arguably not too encouraging either, and may be contributing to many misconceptions.

But what is ‘chewing betel nut’ really? Generally it is the ripe nut of the betel or areca palm (Areca catechu) that is husked, split up and then vigorously masticated. A portion of sirih leaf (Piper betle of the family Piperaceae) is added, together with mineral lime that serves as a catalyst. Sometimes some ‘gambir’ paste or leaf (a bushy scrub of the family Rubiaceae), and spices are added. The whole is chewed up to form a thick, deep red paste between gums and cheeks where it stays, sometimes for hours. In Sabah, the Dusunic communities call this most commonly ‘moginggat’; the Bajau-Malay community knows it as ‘mapa’; and in Malay it is called ‘makan sirih’.

Common misconceptions and myths are abundant: it makes the user high, blackens the teeth and contributes to their early decay; betel induces cancer of the gums and it is highly addictive. Being a ‘betel-addict’ myself, I cannot confirm any of the above. Certainly, you can argue that a smoker may also go out of his way to claim that his habit is not addictive, and most compulsory morning-coffee drinkers will deny that they are addicted to the black brewage. But the fact is that there are only very rudimentary medical studies on betel chewing and its effects on the human body. I can confirm that chewing betel does not make one high in the modern sense of the word (related to hard drugs). It is true, an early morning betel wad is refreshingly awakening, invigorating and lets you breathe more deeply. Betel makes one feel strong and imparts a sensation of well-being, good humour, and comfort. To a certain degree it appeases hunger and pain. Throughout all this, the consciousness and work capacity of the chewer remains unaffected! That is why most rural farmers in Sabah will not leave their house without betel for ‘breakfast’.

Do you suddenly feel like trying it out yourself? Don’t expect too much, though, when you crack your first nut. You might find the taste bitter, even hot, and not feel any special effect whatsoever except heavy salivation, then a grainy mash in your mouth that sticks in between your teeth and a visibly red tongue and lips. Well, betel is not an amphetamine, after all, and maybe somewhat of an acquired taste! Try a tiny bit of betel nut first. Its taste ranges from tangy, milkish sour or slightly cheesy, over bitter sweet with a hint of chocolate and caramel, and a tinge of soil after rain. It is an exotic taste, and that is probably supposed to be so. When you add sirih leaf with lime you will find a refreshing sharpness to it, but if you don’t like spicy food and you come across a distinctly strong or hot mixture of betel and sirih (there are grades!), you might want to spit it out faster than you can! You might even feel a sudden drunkenness, and start sweating profusely, but that only lasts a couple of minutes. Then you will feel the invigorating and awakening effect, like a strong early morning tea.

Chewing betel does prevent the chewer from feeling the pangs of hunger and pain during hard labour in the rice fields under the hot sun. It also makes you feel less thirsty in a tropical work-climate, probably due to the excessive salivating that the chemical compounds of the areca nut provoke. However, after a day of chewing betel nut I always have a rather healthy appetite and eat huge amounts of rice for dinner. So maybe it is not an ideal diet supplement.

It is not entirely true that betel chewing turns teeth black. I go thorough several betel nuts, inclusive sirih, lime and gambir a day, but I also do brush my teeth at least twice daily. If I am not just chewing on my wad I have a white smile. But rural folks may not brush their teeth regularly and long-time use of betel does result in reddish-brown stained teeth, admittedly not the nicest sight in view of those bright white smiles from high gloss magazines to which we compare ours. If you see people in Sabah or Sarawak with shiny black teeth you can be sure they have been filed and stained with a special herbal concoction. This is not the effect of betel chewing, and no brushing with an extra strong tooth paste will make them white again. Fashion changes though, and black teeth are no more ‘in’ than elongated earlobes and plucked eyebrows and eyelashes, once the unmistakable characteristics of many tribes in Borneo (together with tattoos, of course).

Betel is not highly addictive. Most people would find it easier to renounce to betel nut than to cigarettes, beer or coffee. But just like the latter, betel nut is a very social activity. Betel nut chewing tears down cultural barriers, opens up conversation and friendship, brings peace. Betel nuts and sirih leaves play an important role in many rites of passage in the Malay, and the wider Austronesian world. I have often observed that important village meetings in remote and still traditional areas of Sabah are opened only after the betel container was passed around: the subject of the meeting floated vaguely in the air, and betel broke the ice.

Betel nut receptacles play an important role in the daily life not only of those who indulge in chewing it. Beautifully worked brass and silver containers of all shapes and sizes, with artfully decorated betel nut-crackers are still amongst the traditional and cherished heirloom of the people of Malaysia. If you are invited to a Malay wedding, look out for betel nuts. If it is a fully traditional Malay wedding an expensively decorated and fully stocked betel container will solicit your attention and curiosity!

And what about all those nasty side effects any drug carries along? Betel is supposed to cause teeth decay and cancer of the oral cavity. Maybe the most serious accusation comes from the US Food & Drug Administration: betel contains "a poisonous or deleterious substance [arecoline – a light central nervous stimulant]" and that habitual chewing may be linked to oral carcinoma. Despite its authoritative tone, the FDA does not provide any medical data to support the allegations, and an examination of the available literature indicates that no conclusive studies have been carried out. A quick web search on chewing betel nut and its cause for cancer reveals nothing compelling. In the contrary: in the respected medical journal “The Lancet” Dr. B.G. Burton-Bradley writes that "Betel chewing is practised daily by no less than 200 million people, the vast majority of whom do not have oral carcinoma;" German pharmacologist Hesse states that, "Chronic excesses [of betel] do not cause any permanent health disorders;" and Sushruta, the "father of Indian medicine," claims that in the first century AD betel "acted as a general safeguard against disease." So no reason for you to fear anything if you wish to try this so typical Austronesian habit! Back to my personal experience and from talks to village and educated ‘town’ people alike, in Sabah the general knowledge is that betel nut chewing makes ‘strong teeth’. Observing those elderly people who have been addicted to the habit from an early life, I am often astonished that they still have powerful jaws and healthy teeth to masticate the hard betel nut. Admittedly, a generally healthy, even though with hardship filled life, and no artificial sugars of the village denizens has contributed much to their general health. It is sad to see younger generations indulging in sweets and loosing their teeth at an early age by a lack of oral hygiene.

In Sabah, the locals will also tell you that chewing betel nut prevents fevers and helps digestion; the chewing of the nut only keeps awake (bus-drivers like to have a couple of nuts with them, and without sirih and lime you won’t see any red saliva drooling from their lips…); boiled areca nut is a potent laxative; the sirih leaf, with a drop of oil and slightly heated over a flame placed on the tummy of children calms an upset stomach; and the Malay midwife uses sirih leaves to soothe the pains of a child-giving mother. Of course, betel and sirih also play an important role in animistic rites and ceremonies, when betel offerings, together with tobacco, eggs and rice are presented to the spirits.

There is much more to betel chewing than red teeth. It is a habit that is probably older than drinking coffee, and it is an important social component. If you are in Sabah and invited to try to moginggat – makan sirih, go for it. You probably won’t like the taste of it, but don’t worry! Accepting the offer you have made your host proud and happy, and you have gained a new friend. And with the experience you have discovered another secret that makes the magic charm of the Land Below the Wind!
 


betel nuts and sirih leaves on the weekly market

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