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Betel Nut: A South-East Asian Addiction

Blackened teeth and oozing, red saliva is a familiar image amongst many working-class and tribal societies throughout South-East Asia. The mind-altering substance responsible for this unusual look is used by one-tenth of the global population – betel nut.

Once a sign of immense wealth and posterity, the practice has since crossed all socio-economic barriers and age ranges to become an everyday part of life. However, this highly stimulating plant has some very harmful ramifications.

The once sought-after commodity has now become the scourge of South-East Asian society, and one that many countries hope to eradicate. So let me show you everything you need to know about the humble betel nut.

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What is Betel Nut Chewing?

Betel chewing is firmly embedded in the traditions of South-East Asia. In ancient times it was seen as a sign of lavish luxury and enjoyed amongst royalty. Though over time it laid a foundation in communities through religious beliefs, mythical health benefits and, most importantly of all, addiction.

Above all, betel chewing has always been a social affair, much like you’d enjoy a cup of coffee in a local café. And just like your average cup of Joe, betel nuts are most popular amongst working-class men who get a much-needed pick-me-up during their long working hours or following a hard day’s work. The only difference is that it’s 5 times more potent than your typical cup of coffee!

what is betel nut
Preparing a betel nut quid. Photo by on Flickr

Some communities also believe that betel nuts have a range of health, while others believe it has a powerful link to supernatural forces.

As such, alongside nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, betel nuts are thought to be one of the most popular mind-altering substances in the world!

What Is Betel Nut Made From?

Betel nuts are typically used by chewing what is known as a “betel quid”, which is normally made up of three key ingredients.

The ‘nut’ is a seed of the Areca catechu, a member of the palm family which is native to the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia. The nut itself is round and has a tough, fibrous, pale brown husk once it matures.

what is betel nut
The notorious areca nut. Photo by Henryk Kotowski Kotoviski, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The nut is then typically wrapped up in a leaf from the vine of the Piper betle plant, a member of the pepper family. It is then finished off with a dash of lime, which is sourced from different places depending on the area. In Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, its collected from mountain limestones, while island locations obtain it from pulverised sea shells and molluscs.

All of these basic ingredients are brought together and folded up into a neat little package. And there you go, you’ve got yourself a well-made betel quid ready to chew!

Other ingredients can be added for extra flavour or texture. This was also used to show one’s wealth with the likes of cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon and even tobacco added to the mix.

what is betel nut
All three ingredients ready to go. Photo by Colin and Sarah Northway, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How Do You Use Betel Nuts?

As the term “betel chewing” suggests, the quid is placed in the mouth and chewed. This causes all the ingredients to break down and combine until you’re left with a rough, fibrous mix. The quid is then placed between the teeth and the cheek and continuously sucked and chewed.

what is betel nut
Blood-red smile. Photo by Chalky Lives on Flickr

The ingredients inside the betel quid promote saliva production where they’re either swallowed or, just like chewing tobacco, the juices are regularly spat out. The ingredients’ interaction also produces the tell-tale red-coloured saliva. It becomes a recognisable calling card of betel nut chewers when you come across what seems to be splotches of dried blood on the ground.

After years of constant use, it eventually leaves a permanent red or even black staining on the teeth and gums. Nothing beats that betel nut smile.

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What Effects Does It Have?

The betel nut could be compared to an energy drink or a very potent cup of coffee. In fact, one betel quid is as strong as 5 cups of coffee!

For the uninitiated, a few seconds into chewing and you’re immediately hit with an overwhelming feeling of warmth as you feel the surge of energy rush through your body.

It gives a mild feeling of euphoria and well-being, and as such is very popular to use while socialising. It is by no means a narcotic, but it certainly gives you a powerful kick!

For regular chewers, much like a regular coffee drinker, the reaction isn’t quite as intense. Though it certainly acts as a pick-me-up for a much-needed boost.

Where Is It Used?

Betel nut chewing is a popular pastime and ceremonial symbol amongst the entirety of the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia. Its use outstretches as far as Madagascar to the West and Papua New Guinea to the East.

This is partly due to the fact that the Areca catechu plant grows naturally in the region. Therefore over centuries of use, it soon ingrained itself into the fabric of Asian culture.

what is betel nut
A mark of a betel nut chewer. Photo by Basile Morin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Its use throughout each country also varies based on local customs and attitudes towards betel nut. While some find it taboo in the same way as cigarettes or any other legally-harmful substance, others use it freely and in abundance, including young children.

A Brief History of Betel Nut Chewing

Evidence of the plant’s existence has been found as far back as 10,000 BC in north-western Thailand. There have even been skeletons found with evidence of betel chewing dating back to 3000 BC in the Philippines!

Written records of its use have been around since the 11th century amongst South-East Asian royalty. Not only was it a sign of wealth and prosperity, but it also became a ceremonial act and a sign of hospitality to offer guests a betel quid.

Ancient depiction of a betel nut seller. Photo by Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

Even the great Marco Polo himself encountered the notorious betel nut during his travels in India. He noted that, “All the people of this city, as well as of the rest of India, have a custom of perpetually keeping in the mouth a certain leaf… continually chewing it and spitting out the saliva that it excites…

He also suggested a very intriguing solution to deal with others by saying, “If anyone desires to offer a gross insult to another, when he meets him, he spits this juice in his face.” As tempting as that may be, I would not recommend it.

What Is the Significance of Betel Nut?

As stimulating of an experience as chewing betel nut may be, it’s not the be-all and end of its use. In centuries past, betel was also used as a form of medicine and used symbolically during many important social and religious ceremonies.

In Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, betel nut is used during marriages as a sign of love. Northern India also has a unique tradition of offering betel nuts to the dead during funerals.

As such, its use is considered far more important than any other mind-altering substance and thus can be much harder to alter its perception in society.

Sex Sells Betel Nut

One of the most peculiar sites I came across when I first arrived in Taiwan was a number of small booths with a scantly clad, make-up-plastered woman sitting in front of pane-glass windows as they wrapped up what I would later find to be betel quids.

Once you purchase a box of the preprepared delights, the packages are plastered with images of large-breasted women in bikinis looking awfully seductive. This was my introduction to the world of the binlang beauties.

Step right up folks. Keep your eyes up boys. Photo by SElefant, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Taiwan, the betel nut (or binlang in Chinese) industry has become highly sexualised as a way to attract working men. All across the country, from the neon-lit streets to the roadside rice paddies, thousands of provocatively dressed binlang beauties prepare these harmful treats in mass in vain, though very successful attempts to sell their wares to the men of Taiwan.

Betel Chewing and Health

Contrary to modern evidence, ancient South-East Asia literature perceived betel nuts to have great health benefits. They claimed it cured everything from headaches and common infections to even curing impotence (though having hordes of sexualised binlang beauties certainly helps the latter.)

Though in recent decades, the negative impact of betel chewing has come to light. Worryingly, the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists each ingredient in a betel quid as a known carcinogen.

A 2012 and 2014 study found that there’s substantial evidence for the carcinogenicity of areca nut in oral and throat cancers. There’s evidence to prove it affects almost every organ of the human body, including the brain, heart, lungs and reproductive organs.

what is betel nut
Smile! Blackened teeth from years of betel chewing. Photo by Calvin Smith on Flickr

Another study found that in Papua New Guinea, a country where roughly half the population of 9 million people chews betel nuts, has the world’s highest incidence of oral cancer with 15,000 to 25,000 deaths per year.

It also causes and/or aggravates pre-existing conditions such as cardiac arrhythmias, asthma, obesity, type II diabetes and infertility amongst others.

Addressing the Problem of Betel Nuts

As South-East Asia continues to develop, so too has their attitude towards chewing betel nuts.

Taiwan has been at the forefront of this changing tide. Though there has been strong opposition from its avid users, numerous government-funded programs have seen notable reductions in betel nut use. Above all, the public attitude towards betel chewing has also changed. Many have started to find the red-stained teeth and prolific spewing of saliva to be less than appealing.

The Thai, Burmese and Indian governments have also launched numerous campaigns to limit its consumption. Some South-East Asian countries have also set incentives for cultivating alternative cash crops.

As the world’s understanding of the betel nut scourge continues to develop, betel nut will slowly become a dying tradition.

Thank you so much for reading Betel Nut: South-East Asia’s Ancient Epidemic! Check out these other helpful articles!


    • TravellingWelshman

      Same for me! I wondered who had been in a fight or maybe a terrible accident along the street, only to find out it was spit!

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