Betel Nut

Nutty habit has health officials worried



Newly arrived visitors to Taiwan are frequently shocked to see Taiwanese spit out a long stream of a red, blood-like substance.

The red splotches which cover the streets, sidewalks and paths throughout the island are not due to an outbreak of some terrible disease, but the juice of a masticatory made from betel nut.

The concoction, known as binlang, is a mixture of the seed of the betel palm, a sliver of the fruit of the betel piper, and a dab of lime paste and other flavorings, sometimes wrapped in a betel pepper leaf.

It has been chewed by people throughout Asia since ancient times, its use in southern China dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 Ad), when it was sent annually to the court in tribute.

However, its increasing popularity in Taiwan, where it is popularly known as Chinese chewing gum, has health experts and agricultural officials worried.

According to the Council of Agriculture, land cultivated for betel nut production has risen sharply over the past decade, from 3,000 hectares in 1979 to 33,000 hectares in 1989, for a 10-fold increase.

New land turned over to betel nut production rose 38 percent in 1989 alone. While farmers decreased production of rice, pineapple and adzuki beans to make way for this profitable crop, which raked in US$127 million in 1989.

While there are no hard figures for sales, the total retail value on the island was estimated at US$2.8 billion in 1988, almost triple the US$1 billion for the previous year.

There are several reasons to explain this phenomenon.

First, betel nut is one of the easiest crops to grow. Little manpower is required and damage from pests is not a serious problem. This coupled with rising prices, has turned the betel nut palm tree into a money tree, encouraging farmers to step up reduction.

Furthermore, the selling price has been increasing, encouraging more people to get involved. According to a report carried out by one advertising company in Taiwan, there are more than 70,000 betel nut stands around the island, which also account for 30 percent of all cigarette sales.

One government report notes that there are more than 100 binlang stands on the 20 kilometre stretch of road between Taipei and Taoyuan.

Betel nut is said to contain a narcotic stimulant and to have some medicinal value, which explains its popularity, especially among people who work long hours, such as farmers, fishermen, and taxi and truck drivers.

Agriculture officials are concerned about the shifting of more and more land from commercial crops tot he cultivation of what is considered a “hobby” crop.

“We have worried about this for a long time,” says Wu Min-tze, an official with the Council of agriculture. “Years ago we tried to persuade growers not to increase betel nut production but we were not very successful.”

Doctors also express concern about the growing popularity of this product, arguing that betel nut contains a carcinogenic substance called arecoline and that its growing use could lead to a sharp increase in mouth, throat and stomach cancer.

The government does not collect statistics on cancer, but Dr Hwang Ming-hsiung, an oral surgeon at National Taiwan University Hospital, says that nine out of 10 mouth cancer patients that he has treated are regular betel nut chewers.

Dr Hwang says that the habit can also cause sub-mucous fibrosis, a premalignant form of cancer which limits the ability to open the mouth, for which there is no known cure.

Betel nut chewers, like many smokers, refuse to recognise the dangers and doctors concede that it is difficult to stop the habit. Dr Hwang says that not enough is being done to tell people about the negative side of betel nut use.

“Humans won’t eat toxic things if they know it is poisonous,” says Dr Hwang, “but there is not enough information about the dangers of chewing betel nut and many people do not believe chewing it will cause cancer.”

Calls by the medical profession to outlaw its use have fallen on deaf ears.

Mr. Wu of the Council of Agriculture said it was difficult to discourage the use of betel nut because of the “critical role” it plays in Taiwanese culture, especially in the south.

While it is common in the north to offer a guest a cigarette, a visitor in the south is more likely to have a betel nut thrust into his hand. At weddings betel nut is given away like candy.

Furthermore, no respectable politician hits the campaign trail in the south without a supply of betel nuts to offer to voters. In last December’s election many male candidates began chewing in order to be identified as a man of the people.

Hsu Hsiao-tan, the model turned nude dancer who was a candidate for the Legislative Yuan, sold betel nut form the back of a truck in the southern city of Kaohsiung to raise money for her campaign.

Taiwan’s businessmen, ever on the lookout for new ways to expand their business horizons, are already using their sharp business instincts to expand usage of this profitable product. To meet overseas demand among Chinese and Southeast Asians and to offset a supply shortage during the off season, some entrepreneurs have come out with canned and freeze dried versions of the product.

Despite a ban on the export of the product, smugglers are said to be already doing a brisk business, sending out large quantities hidden in the bags of travelers.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney