Tuesday, April 23, 2013


The Paan chewing and cigarette smoking represent distinct cultures of East and West, some thing similar to Roti and bread. One cannot miss the fact that on both cigarettes and bread there are millions of references in literature as they have been extensively studied and researched into by western scientists and there is practically nothing more to know about them. In contrast reluctance of scientists in the East to study these heritage habits has kept them in the dark with very little real time information available on them. Take the example of cigarettes which were implicated beyond a shadow of doubt in cancerous diseases and thousands of deaths have been attributed to smoking of cigarettes. But information is very scanty and unreliable when it comes to paan chewing, except some scattered reports that it can lead to some types of cancers in oral cavity and esophagus.

Betel leaves along with arecanut and slaked lime constitute the classical paan, commonly referred to as 'quid" in literature and chewing it was linked to the history of many countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Solomon Islands, Thailand, Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam and a few other oceanic countries. Probably paan chewing started as a habit among people thousands of years ago though definitive dates are not accurately known. Addition of tobacco to paan was a much later phenomenon and many believe that it is the tobacco component that causes damage to the habitual paan chewers. Betel leaves as such are not considered very dangerous and this leaf has many social, cultural and religious association in different communities in the countries mentioned earlier.

Betel leaves chewing after applying a thin coating of slaked lime generates a reddish color on contact with saliva and it probably constituted the earliest example of women getting the effect, similar to applying lip stick on their lips! It is believed that addition of lime makes the chewed matrix in the mouth alkaline enabling entry into the blood through bilingual absorption.  In some communities this leaf is considered auspicious and forms a part of many ceremonies. In Brahmin community of India any "dhana" or "dakshina" to purohits and holy people must be accompanied by giving betel leaf along with arecanut. Betel leaf and arecanut are also offered after a feast, presumably to freshen the mouth and facilitate digestion of rich foods consumed during the occasion.

According to one report 6 leaves of the Betel vine is equivalent to 300 ml of milk in terms of its vitamin and mineral contents. The leaves, on a fresh weight basis contains about 3% proteins, 1% fat, 3% minerals, 2% dietary fiber, and 0.2% essential oil. The essential oil can be extracted and it has been claimed to be antibacterial, antiprotozoan and antifungal. Interestingly Betel leaves, consumed by about 30 million people in India alone, are claimed to have medicinal properties capable of treating a mutlitude of diseases and ailments that include boils and abscess, conjunctivitis, constipation, head ache, hysteria, itches, mastitis, ring worms, swelling of joints, rheumatism, tooth ache, coughing, asthma etc. When paan is made by incorporating spices like cardamom, saffron, cloves, aniseed, turmeric, mustard, etc its medicinal value gets boosted several fold.

Cultivation of betel wines in India alone is estimated to be in an area of about 55000 hectares, involving about 4-5 lakh families and generating a value of the order of $ 200 million. If the present trend is any indication, consumption of betel leaves is bound to come down over the years causing some hardship to the growers of this leaf, often called the "Green Gold" of India. It is amazing that in a crop like betel leaves, there are many varieties being grown with different eating characteristics and if the direct consumption tends to go down, there must be some other options available to safeguard the interest of the growers and considering that this leaf by itself is never implicated in any adverse health episodes, its beneficial value must be exploited. Oleoresin extraction technology offers a ready route for exploiting the value of betel leaf essential oil and an agency like ICMR must take up in-depth studies on the real value of the constituents present in betel leaf.

Arecanut contains the alkaloid aricolene and there is a view that people with heart problem must not consume. Interestingly arecanut has a fat which is saturated in nature with high melting point and suggestions are made to use refined arecanut fat as a cocoa butter substitute though there are no takers so far for making chocolate with areca fat. The modern version of paan, Gutka is a combination of tobacco and arecanut with a few other ingredients and it is widely being consumed in India. Presently under the Indian food laws Gutka making and sale have been banned officially though it is still available in many parts of the country. One of the most nauseating social fall out of paan chewing is that most consumers do not swallow the masticated juice and in stead spit it indiscriminately in public places causing severe civic problems in many metropolitan areas. Many civic bodies and agencies have banned paan chewing in public like cigarette smoking.  


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