Tuesday, October 9, 2012

All About Betel Nut in India

You know how Peruvians chew coca leaves for a nice natural kick? Indians love betel nut for similar reasons, namely due to the nut’s alkaloids. Of course, betel nut has other roles in Indian culture: it’s even mentioned in chapters of the kama sutra. This powerful little nut is also one of the world’s earliest psychoactive compounds.

Origin of Betel Nut
Betel nut originated in the Philippines or Malasysia, but it owes its Latin name, “Areca cachu,” to the Indian coast.  The areca palm fruit isn’t prized as much as the nut, but I would feel remiss listing the fruits of India without mentioning the betel nut.  

Cultural Significance of Betel Nut
Betel nut is considered to be a holy plant in India, particularly in the Brahmin religion.

The nuts are offered to guests as a sign of hospitality, and the leaves are given with turmeric and kumkum powder as a gift (often to newlyweds). This is because betel nuts are a sign of luck. The leaves are also offered to the gods during pujas.

Marriages in Bengal are finalized when the husband and wife swapping a brass container topped with betel nut leaves. In Rajasthan ceremonies, the relatives of the bridegroom only eat once a betel leaf is served to all guests.

From the HumanFlowerProject.com

In Nepal amongst the Newa population, the man gives betel nuts to the woman as a marriage proposal. During the wedding, she marries the betel nut before the husband. This will, in the future, enable her to leave the husband by returning the betel nut to him if she's unhappy. Actually, she only has to leave them under his pillow before taking off. 

Though betel nut is more common than chewing gum today, chewing it used to be done by royal families circa 2000 BC.

Even Indian gods have a preference when it comes to the number of leaves: Vishnu prefers 32.

Availability of Betel in India
Betel nut is readily available throughout the country. It grows year-round particularly in the south along the coastal areas of Karnataka through Kerala, but is harvest from August-November.

Where to find Betel Nut in India
Betel nuts are sold in stalls throughout India. Though you can get the nuts in bags quite easily, they’re more commonly bought in the form of paan. This digestive aid and stimulant is sold in the humblest stalls of India and served in 5-star hotels after expensive meals. The best way to find betel nut is to simply ask: Someone will point you in the right direction.

Checking for Ripeness in Betel Nut
Unripe areca palm fruits are greenish yellow. When ripe, the fruit turns an orange hue. Again, ripened fruits are seldom harvested.

Taste of Betel Nut
In its purest form, initial taste of betel nut is mildly spicy, akin to cinnamon and nutmeg. Some describe a woody peppery flavor. Given that the nut’s preparation requires drying, it’s tough to chew just the nut by itself. As the saliva softens the nut, its aftertaste becomes bitter, astringent and unpleasant. Nobody will profess to liking the taste of betel nut; only its effects.

Effects of Chewing Betel Nut
Chewing betel nut creates a short-lived feeling of euphoria, alertness and light-headedness when chewed. Many compare the feeling with ones gained from drinking coffee or smoking a cigarette.

The degree of these feelings varies depending on how much you chew, and also whether you spit or swallow the nut. Holding betel nut in your cheek like chewing tobacco also prolongs the effects.

The sensations of betel nut may also be compounded with additives. Tobacco is the most notable one, but lime (calcium mineral, not the fruit) is another highly typical addition. Many additional spices, herbs and flavors get added to betel nut depending on the occasion and preference. 

Another noteworthy effect of the betel nut is its ability to stain the lips and teeth. Locals with exceptionally red teeth are a common sight throughout India and a surefire sign they’ve been indulging in paan.

Betel teeth

Nutritional Value of Betel Nut
I found this information on calorie-data.com, and I’m unsure of its validity. I’ve nonetheless added it since nobody eats betel nuts with calorie counting in mind. I also sent an email to the owner and asked for backup sources.

Per 100g, the nutritional value of betel nut is…

5.2g Protein
10.2g Fat
56.7g Carb
.19mg Thiamine/B1
.52mg Riboflavin/B2
1.1mg Niacin/B3
76mg Sodium
450mg Potassium
400mg Calcium
89mg Phosphorous
4.9mg Iron

I also found this snippet from the book, "Lesser Known and Underutilized Plant Resources."

Negative Health Effects of Betel Nut
Ascertaining the health effects of betel nut is somewhat complicated. Most medical studies seldom measure the effects of betel nut by itself and instead choose to study paan (a composite of betel nut with other substances, notably tobacco—a well-known carcinogen).

According to the book, “Nuts and Seeds in Health and Disease Prevention, the possible short-term side effects of chewing betel nut are redness in the face (reported by many daring foreigners who chew the nut), flushing heat, nausea, dizziness, stomach upset, diarrhea, anaphylactic shock, headaches, muscle stiffness and dizziness.

Long-term health effects of chewing betel nut include eroded enamel and poor oral health, cancer of the neck, esophagus and mouth, respiratory problems, abnormal thyroid function, cirrhosis, hypertension, confusion, memory loss, muscle stiffness, rapid heart beat, elevated blood pressure, involuntary seizures of face and mouth, vision abnormalities, increased body secretions, fever, incontinence, malabsorption of nutrients, and increased birth risks in pregnant women.

Again, it’s difficult to say if these results arise from chewing only betel nut or if they are concluded from chewing tobacco-laced paan.

Positive Health Effects of Betel Nut
Betel nut isn’t all bad news.

According to “The Book of Edible Nuts,” “The Way of Ayrvedic Herbs,” and Intelihealth.com
--Its leaf contains anti-platelet and anti-inflammatory properties. Such properties may in fact help heart disease patients.
--The leaves also contain vitamin C and calcium, along with oil containing antiseptic properties.
--When powdered, it’s a carminative agent
--Betel nut is prescribed as treatment for dysentery, tapeworms and roundworms.
--Fishermen in Chennai spit betel nut onto wounds from Octopus
--The betel nut aids constipation, bloating, edema, and is a vermifuge
--Antioxidant content of betel nut prevents cellular degeneration
--Its leaves may treat back pain and arthritic pain
--Some findings show that betel nut may provide relief for sufferers of schizophrenia
--Studies indicate that betel nut might help stroke sufferers with improved speech, bladder control and muscle strength
--Studies show betel nut may remedy ulcerative colitis
--Betel nut’s antibacterial properties may assist with dental health. It used to be an ingredient in toothpaste for this reason.

Just as it’s difficult to explain the risk of betel nut chewing, the benefits are equally nebulous. These benefits are difficult to prove, given the unscientific nature of such folk remedies. Furthermore, most studies have postscripts explaining that the benefits do not outweigh the risks of cancer.

How to Prepare Betel Nut:
The egg-sized unripe fruits are extracted from the tree typically during August through November. Very seldom is it consumed raw—for the fruit to have any commercial value, it’s boiled first, cut, and then set in the warm sun to dry. Thus, most of the betel nut to hit the market is dried.

Betel Nut Recipe Ideas and Uses:
Here’s a chart I found showing how to prepare Paan.

The ingredients placed on the leaf may be any of the following:

12/15. Areca nut shavings
18. Lime (mineral)
--Anise seeds
--Sweetened coconut
--Rose petals
--Pistachio, almonds and/or cashew
--Katha (acacia wood paste)

Personal Experience:
I was given paan (sans tobacco) as a digestive after a meal. I had no idea about betel nut and its stimulating properties, but the taste was so bad I couldn’t stomach it. I might’ve tried to keep it in my mouth if I knew of its benefits!

Random Facts:
As part of his job, my husband implemented a ban on betel nut chewing at a work site. The laborers were staining the white walls and the glass when they’d spit their red saliva out the window. Apparently a few packs were confiscated in the subsequent months.

Betel spit
Aside from the books/cites mentioned above, info came from spiritualjourneys.net


  1. ha. I love that you included a picture of Betel spit. Ick!

    1. you pick up all negative things. your culture to blame!

  2. Thank you so much! This is the best compiled information I have found about the subject yet.

  3. The betel leaf is not the leaf of the same tree that produces the betel nut. The betel leaf, or paan, as it is called in Hindi, is the leaf of a creeper, where as the betel nut is the nut of a palm.

  4. I just bought a 2 lbs bag of the dried sliced betel nut without a recipe Thank you for the information,

  5. If you will eat betel nut along with Almond ,the betel nut will be very soft...

    1. Plain betel nut does not stain your teeth or the spit is not red. You talking about spit from pan which has a lot of other additives which stains your teeth and the spit. I know because I have eaten betel nut all my life.

  6. Every nut is beneficial in one or the other way. I always look for posts that helps in providing benefits to my body. While surfing I came across nut of India. It is good for removing excess body weight and fats. It is a 100% natural product. You can try visiting this website www.nuez-dela-india.com to collect more information about it.