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Betel leaf — much maligned, yet valuable

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Beneficial: Betel leaf contains compounds (of the piperol family) that act as heart beat regulators and help in relaxing blood vessels. — Photo: V. RAJU
Beneficial: Betel leaf contains compounds (of the piperol family) that act as heart beat regulators and help in relaxing blood vessels. — Photo: V. RAJU

It was but a little more than a year ago that the government in Dubai decided to ban the import of ‘ Paan' or betel leaves.

Reason: it wanted to stop people eating Paan with areca nut, lime and tobacco (the folded packet is called the betel quid), and spitting all over. This sight is, alas, only too familiar to us in many parts of India.

Despite the placing of spittoons, many tend to ignore them. It is this unseemly practice that has made Paan or the betel quid a much maligned item.

But think of the leaf alone — sans the tobacco, lime and even the areca nut. The betel leaf — called Tambula or Nagavalli (in Sanskrit), Paan (Hindi), vetrilai (Tamil), or Tamalapaku (Telugu) is a much esteemed leaf across the dozen nations of South and Southeast Asia.

Auspicious

It is used not only in Hindu ceremonies, but also as an auspicious exchange material. Deals, business transactions and even marriage alliances are made using tambulam exchange.

The Vietnamese saying “chuyen trau cau” means matters of betel and areca nut.

Eaten by over 600 million people daily in a geographic area measuring 11,000 x 6,000 km, the betel leaf symbolizes not mere botany, but culture, tradition and even the sacred.

The plant itself seems to have originated in Malaysia or India; the exact site of origin is yet to be established with certainty. The Harappan civilization, 4600 years ago, cultivated and used the betel leaf.

The Vedic people were familiar with it, and both Suruta and Charaka, the great medical experts of pre-Christian India wrote of its virtues.

Two excellent reports, one from Dr. P Gupta of IIT Kharagpur ( J. Human Ecology 2006,19, 87-93) and the more recent one from Nikhil Kumar and others from Lucknow ( Current Science, 2010,99,922-932), offer excellent summaries of the cultivation, chemical and medicinal aspects of this green gold of Asia. Both articles are downloadable free on the net.

And the sheer variety! The pale Banarasi, the green Magadi, Kerala's Tirur, Kumbakonam light, pungent Mysore, non- pungent Ambadi, Hinjili cut of Orissa, special ones from Dhaka, the list goes on.

Songs and movie ditties are written about the paan ( Khaiyike Paan Banaraswala Khul Jaye Band Akhal ka Taala, and Paan Khaye Saiyan Hamaro, Saavali suratiya Honth Laal Laal). Paan culture rose to its elegant heights in the courts of Lucknow nawabs, with special area nut cutters, handcrafted silver boxes called Paadaans. It was at once an aphrodisiac, attention getter and status settler.

But what then gave Paan the bad name? Besides the disgusting habit of spitting wherever, and the abuse and addition, early (Western) literature up to the mid-1980s suggested that the betel quid causes oral cancer.

It was left to the work of Dr. S.V. Bhide and others at the cancer Institute, Bombay, to show that it is not the leaf, but some contents of the areca nut (notably safrole), and of course the tobacco which are the culprits.

Highly recommended

The article by Nikhil Kumar and other from the National Botanical Research Institute, and Central Drug Research Institute (both at Lucknow) mentioned above, lists a variety of beneficial properties of the betel leaf, and I recommend it highly to the readers.

As the leaves are chewed, the effect starts already at the oral cavity. It freshens breath, and cleanses the mouth with its mild anti-infective content. Its constituents enter the blood directly from the buccal mucosa.

This feature of direct entry, rather than through the stomach (gastric) route, into the blood stream offers a convenient way of delivering drugs using Paan!

The first thing the leaf does upon chewing is to induce salivation. Saliva contains proteins which combat bacterial growth in the mouth. It thus helps also in cutting down plaque formation on teeth.

What else? Betel leaf contains compounds (of the piperol family) that act as heart beat regulators and help in relaxing blood vessels. The polyphenols in the leaf (allyl pyrocatechol, hydroxyl-chavicol) not only fight microbes but act as pain relievers and anti-inflammatory agents.

Wound healing

The use of betel leaf as an anti-ulcer and wound healing material has been known to Indians since the Ayurvedic days. Kumar and Co cite several animal experiments which go to confirm this property of the leaf extract.

In an ironic twist, what was once alleged to cause cancer, is now shown to have components that have chemopreventive and anticancer activity. Of these, eugenol and hydroxychavicol are particularly worthy of mention.

It is clear. Betel leaf is a storehouse of a list of chemicals, many of which are of pharmaceutical value.

Chemists are now trying to isolate and identify each of these molecules and study their effects, both singly and as mixtures. It is likely that this green gold of India from the days of yore may still surprise us with more of its beneficial effects.

What is the take home message? Paan is best eaten by itself, avoiding the areca nut, and with just bit of lime, the way the Kumbakonam Light is meant to.

Of course, go ahead and add cloves, cardamom, rose leaf chutney (gulkand), whatever catches your fancy — and enjoy, but no tobacco, and don't spit!

D. BALASUBRAMANIAN

dbala@lvpei.org


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