The humble Pacific-Rim fruit that roared


When ripe, the tropical fruit noni turns the kind of yellow-green most people associate with nasal congestion — and gives off an odor pungent enough to clear that congestion away. Accordingly, noni’s profile has long been low compared with that of more popular Pacific Rim fruits.

Noni is so low-profile, in fact, that many people have never heard of it. But that is about to change.

In the past decade, the humble noni — more specifically its juice — has rapidly become the top product of the worldwide Complementary and Alternative Medicine movement. In 1996, the leading purveyor of noni juice, a Utah-based firm called Morinda International, listed profits of $40 million. By 2001, those per-annum profits had risen to $550 million.

The noni boom is now seeping into Japan.

Three years ago, only three Japanese trading companies were importing noni products. Today, they number more than 30. Morinda International has also built an enormous “Tahitian Noni Cafe” not far from the Metropolitan Government offices in west Shinjuku. Meanwhile, down in Okinawa, farmers are working hard to add domestic noni to the marketplace.

Why all the excitement? The simple answer is “better health.” Users around the world are trumpeting noni as a panacea for . . . well, for almost anything.

Noni is said to help relieve backache, skin conditions, high blood pressure, asthma, stomach problems, diabetes — and the list goes on and on.

At present, however, its success is only anecdotal. Users believe improvements in their conditions are due to taking noni. Clinical verification of noni effectiveness is still awaited.

Yet verification is not essential for the CAM movement, which embraces natural remedies more as supplements for conventional medicines than as replacements. As a natural, nonpharmaceutical product, noni is not subject to the regulations of sanctioning bodies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Rather, CAM advocates prefer to call noni juice and other similar health products “nutriceuticals.”

Currently, several universities — among them the University of Hawaii, the University of Illinois and Keio University — are conducting serious studies into noni’s efficacy, with the most intriguing research dealing with noni as a possible inhibitor of cancer.

Theories abound as to why noni might work, but most focus on the fruit’s ability to help the body help itself.

For example, some advocates say antioxidant-rich noni acts as a chelating agent by absorbing extra trace metals in the body and then balancing the body’s system by aiding discharge of overabundant toxins. Others say noni strengthens cell structure, enabling cells to better take care of themselves. In a 1992 study of the fruit’s effects that used mice as test subjects, researchers at the University of Hawaii stated that noni “seemed to suppress tumor growth indirectly by activation of the host immune system.”

History also points to noni as something more than snake oil. The island peoples of Polynesia have used the plant for health purposes for centuries, drinking the juice and applying it directly to wounds. When Polynesians from Tahiti rowed their longboats 4,000 km to colonize Hawaii, noni was one of the plants they carried on board as being essential for their lifestyle.

The fruit itself perhaps originated in India, but now grows throughout the Pacific tropics, as well as in Australia, Africa and the Caribbean. It is sometimes called the Indian mulberry, and bears the scientific name Morinda citrofolia. The shrublike noni grows to a height of around 2 meters and produces fruit all year round. Each branch typically bears five fruits, which ripen one at a time, beginning with that nearest the tree.

Not only do the ripened fruit smell unsavory, the flavor is so objectionable that one company — Pure Nonu Juice of the South Pacific — even advertises under the slogan, “Something that tastes this bad must be good for you.” (“Nonu” is another term for noni.) Almost no one, needless to say, eats noni straight off the tree.

To offset the strong flavor of the juice, most companies cut their product with other fruit juices. Tahitian Noni Juice, marketed by Morinda International, looks like grape juice and can even be used as an icecream topping. Another company, Hawaii’s House of Gold, uses a carefully controlled picking and distilling process to sell juice that is 100 percent noni, but with a flavor that rivals even the best diluted noni juices.

Juice is the best-selling product, but other noni merchandise includes noni tea, noni shampoo and even noni chocolates.

The noni price, however, is not so attractive. One liter of Tahitian Noni Juice sells for 6,250 yen. If imbibed in daily 30 ml measures, as recommended, this will last for a month. Other more pocket-friendly noni juices can be found online, but none are going to be as cheap as, say, a steaming bowl of chicken soup. Still, noni producers are betting that when it comes to health, Japanese consumers will be willing to pay top prices for noni benefits.

Okinawan noni production cannot yet compare to the big business of Tahiti or Hawaii, although Okinawan farmers have hopes. Tahitian noni prides itself on being the finest due to the rich volcanic soil and a pristine environment.

However, Hawaiian growers counter that they, too, have a pristine environment and their volcanic soil is richer still.

In between this not-so-friendly competition lies the unassuming noni.

It does not look, smell or taste like a star. But this lowly fruit may soon be playing second banana to none.