The components of the noni plant show great potential for new ingredients, but regulators still want more science to back it up. Shane Starling reports.
Like many 'Old World' botanicals and foodstuffs, the migration of Morinda citrifolia, or noni, to Western shelves hasn't been a smooth one. Unsure of what it had on its hands, the European Union (EU) banned the marketing of noni in the late '90s, but it has now revoked the ban and the product is expected back on the shelves later this summer. For now, though, noni can only be procured via multi-level marketing in Europe.
Around the same time the EU issued its ban, the largest noni manufacturer and distributor in the US was threatened with legal action by the states of Arizona, California, New Jersey and Texas for implying that noni products could treat and cure a range of diseases. The company, then known as Morinda, ceased the practise (its marketing now promotes noni as nothing more than a health drink), agreed to an out-of-court multi-million dollar settlement and changed its name to Tahitian Noni. The Utah-based company remains America's-and the world's-largest noni operation, with a network of more than 250 mainly US-based distributors and sales in excess of $400 million in 2002.
Sales Success And Noni's Health Benefits
Tahitian Noni is not alone in achieving buoyant sales figures, because other companies are finding success with a range of products from juices to lotions to teas, all derived from the multi-faceted Pacific fruit. It has been used in places as far-flung as Hawaii, Tahiti, northern Australia and Southeast Asia, where the noni tree (which can grow as tall as seven metres) has flourished for years. Locals used the plant's fruit, leaves, flowers, bark and roots to treat all manner of ailments from abrasions and broken bones to tuberculosis, arthritis, rheumatism, diabetes, heart troubles, depression, influenza, headaches, high blood pressure and the onset of old age. The juice of the fruit, which smells like bleu cheese, has even been used as a treatment for head lice. Australian Aboriginals consumed the fruit as a food despite its bitter taste, while noni leaves, bark and roots have been, and sometimes still are, used as dyes for clothing.
Although there is little clinical evidence backing its health benefits, research has found noni to be high in antioxidants, and testimonials point to its potential for boosting the immune and circulatory systems as well as increasing energy levels. It is usually consumed as a liquid-30ml per day is considered an adequate amount.
History Of A Medicinal Plant
"Noni was originally brought to Hawaii by Tahitians, although it is native to India. It's a sacred plant to Hawaiians," says Scott Schuett, vice president of Pharm East Hawaii, which makes a range of noni powders for use predominantly in noni drinks. "You can get a range of noni products in pretty much all the supermarkets here in Hawaii, but in most other markets it is found mainly in health food stores."
Noni made its first appearance in the mainland US states less than 10 years ago. In that time, Tahitian Noni's vast multi-level marketing network has captured about 90 per cent of the market, meaning most sales occur via word-of-mouth, although companies like Pharm East Hawaii are pushing hard to increase retail sales.
"Noni is becoming more popular through the health food store network on the mainland now," Schuett notes. "It is especially popular in the Spanish, Asian and South American communities. We do a lot of niche marketing to target these kinds of ethnic markets. Many of our distributors are from ethnic communities, and so they tend to target their own communities. For example, the Vietnamese community consumes more noni per capita than anybody else in the US right now."
The company also is active in many Asian markets. "There is a huge market in Asia. The Japanese market alone is about the same size as the US market," Schuett estimates. "Noni has always been popular in Southeast Asia, where it has been used for hundreds of years, but now it's gaining popularity in northern Asia, too. So we are selling into Japan and we are opening up China as well as Thailand and Taiwan. There is a whole variety of noni products going over there at the moment. Powders, drinks, teas, capsules, yoghurts—noni candy is doing well in Japan."
Noni products have been in Europe for five years on a private basis because distributors could not market the product until the ban was lifted. Jurgen Rekin, PhD, product developer at German-based Pharmos Natural Cosmetics and Remedies, has a line of noni products ready to hit the shelves and he strongly believes the ban should never have occurred in the first place.
"It is quite safe and, therefore, there shouldn't be any objection to distribute it legally in Europe. There have never been any adverse reports from its consumption. It is free for distribution once the European Parliament rubberstamps the European Commision's decision," Rekin says, adding, "noni is good for health in general. It makes you feel good. It is different to, say, coffee that lasts for only a few hours. Noni can last all day long."
Pharmos Natural Cosmetics and Remedies will market its version of noni in supplement form, hence avoiding any taste issues. "We don't flavour our products, as we make capsules," he notes. "But we don't want people to think of it as a medicine. We want them to think of it as a food supplement, a health supplement."
The Future For Noni
Rekin acknowledges that the lack of available science influenced the European Commission's initial decision and it is something the industry needs to address if it is to fulfill its potential. "It would be desirable if there were more research funds put into noni. We haven't engaged in any at the moment, but it is something we are looking into."
"There has never been greater public interest in noni," Schuett agrees. "It has enormous potential for a worldwide market right now, but there needs to be more credible science put behind it if that is to happen. The science needs to be more detailed and more available for people in the marketplace. There are a bunch of trials being conducted both here in Hawaii and abroad, but the results aren't in yet."
Only then will mainstream food and beverage players be more likely to show an interest in the product. "Companies are hesitant to make an investment because it hasn't achieved GRAS certification in the US and so they are unsure if it is going to be sold in the future. Pharm East Hawaii has begun canvassing noni players to establish an industry-wide alliance, "to give noni more credibility as a nutraceutical," says Schuett.
If the noni boom arrives, there will be no shortage of supply because trees are being grown commercially in many locales. "We could expand production exponentially in a short time if we needed to, and I am sure we are not alone," Schuett notes, adding that yields were improving with each harvest as noni cultivators learn more about the evergreen.
Pharm East Hawaii makes half a dozen different noni ingredients. "We're making a solar-dried noni powder, which employs a low temperature drying technique we developed to keep the enzymes intact and enhance the polysaccharide content because the fruit actually ripens during the drying process," Schuett says.
"We have a couple of proprietary juicing techniques—we strain it and then age it. Most people ferment the mash in order to increase the fermentation rate. Our method decreases the fermentation rate. It makes a more mellow product that contains less tannins and less lactic acid."
If only someone would apply that kind of attention to detail to a double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial or two, the well-being of the noni industry could be assured well into the future.