Here’s an age-old question: How can something so good for you taste so bad?
Type “noni” into the Internet search engine Google. An astonishing 6.4 million entries (and counting) pop up regarding a fruit that grows throughout the tropics worldwide, including in Costa Rica’s Caribbean region.
Most listings hail the reputed cure-all properties of the six-centimeter noni, which changes color from green to yellow to offwhite as it ripens.
Noni has been used to treat or prevent – take a deep breath – hypertension, arthritis, menstrual cramps, nicotine withdrawal, asthma, low libido, boils, concussion, migraines, hernia, cancer, depression, obesity, diabetes, insomnia, Alzheimer’s disease, flesh wounds, tuberculosis, ulcers, herpes, phlebitis, obesity, apoplexy, headaches, colitis, seizures, hemorrhoids, Parkinson’s disease, impotence, high cholesterol, meningitis, drug addiction, smallpox, illicit drug use, appetite loss, nightmares, constipation and diarrhea.
For good measure, the tree, which grows up to nine meters tall, is used as a windbreak or to provide shade for coffee plants in many parts of the world.
Most Google entries also tout the exoticism of noni products from Tahiti.
“That’s marketing,” says Adrián Villalobos of Costa Rican noni-processing firm Yabalá, S.A. (273-0812, www.costaricanoni. com). “Tahiti sounds romantic, but whether or not the fruit really originated there, we don’t know.”
Polynesian legends of the demigod Maui wrapped in noni leaves and brought back to life after being slain by the goddess of death matter little to Villalobos. Nevertheless, Spanish, like English, uses the Hawaiian name for the fruit known scientifically as Morinda citrifolia.
It is known that noni is not native to Central America. Villalobos suggests that seeds were brought to this part of the world by Asian immigrants about a century ago.
The fruit adapted well to our tropical climes, especially the rainy conditions and volcanic soil of the Caribbean.
Large noni plantations exist in Costa Rica near Ciudad Quesada in the Northern Zone and in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, Villalobos says.
“But ‘large’ means ‘agrochemicals,’” he adds.
Yabalá – the company name means “child” in the indigenous Cabécar language – instead prefers to work with smaller organic farms at Bananito, in the Caribbean region south of Limón, and Hone Creek and Carabón Dos, south of Cahuita. Producers bring their fruit to a collection center at Hone Creek.
From there, the firm turns the fruit into its line of preservative-free juices.
The local firm Nutri-Noni (258-6347, 50 meters west of the Toyota) has also hopped onto the noni bandwagon, with a large store on San José’s Paseo Colón, and even a display table of its juices, capsules and soaps in the boarding area at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in Alajuela, northwest of San José.
Though many studies have been performed to demonstrate noni’s beneficial properties, the fruit has its detractors, many of them coming from the ranks of officialdom.
Noni-based products sold in the United States bear the caveat, “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease” regarding any health-related labeling claims.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies noni products as “nutritional supplements” rather than drugs. Similar labeling applies to products sold in Canada and the European Union.
That doesn’t stop noni from having many fans, who faithfully ingest one or two ounces a day, though there is still that pesky little matter of the taste. As the fruit ripens to the point at which it is harvested and blended into juice, it develops a characteristic odor, one that has caused some to dub it the “vomit fruit.”
“Even mixing it with something else, you can still taste something awful and vile,” says TT colleague María Gabriela Díaz, nonetheless a real noni aficionada.
Edith Brown, the venerable Miss Edith, arguably the Caribbean’s best-known restaurant proprietor (and one of Costa Rica’s most famous), makes noni drinks at her eatery in Cahuita. She mixes it with pineapple or blackberry juice.
Does noni ever end up as an ingredient in any of Brown’s dishes?
“Oh, my gosh, no!” she shudders. “Could you imagine the taste?”
Hazel Jirón of quintessential vegetarian restaurant Shakti in San José says that the restaurant makes noni batidos (shakes) that are quite popular. Raspberry and pineapple juice help mask the characteristic noni flavor, she says.
“Welch’s Grape Juice,” Yabalá’s Villalobos recommends. “That’s the best thing I’ve found to use as a mixer.”
The Tico Times certainly supports the quest for alternative methods of maintaining health and wellness, but we recommend consulting your health-care provider before embarking on a noni regimen to treat any condition.