In recent years, exotic "super fruits" such as acai and muntrie berries have captured the attention of health enthusiasts and researchers alike for their unparalleled antioxidant content and seemingly miraculous benefits. Some of the most astonishing health claims, however, have gone unsubstantiated, even as growers and manufacturers of such fruit products have reaped billions in profit from a public always eager for the latest anti-aging, weight loss cure-all.
The latest member of this botanical line-up is the noni fruit, which flourishes in Hawaii and other Polynesian climes and has been used for centuries by traditional healers from these islands. Hawaiian Kahunas applied noni leaves as a topical salve for burns, skin conditions and joint pain, and recommended the fruit for digestive disturbances and urinary tract infections. Local islanders continue to consume the fruit today, reporting it to be beneficial for more serious chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.
Those who want to follow suit and partake of noni may find they have a bitter pill to swallow. Eating the fruit itself can be truly repugnant — noni has earned the nickname "vomit fruit" because its smell and taste are so foul! But modern processing has sweetened it up into a juice that's palatable, and noni can also be taken as a tea or dehydrated into odorless, tasteless powder form in capsules. With these more appealing options, noni has become widely accessible and has won over celebrity adherents from Marc Jacobs to Meg Ryan. Manufacturers laud the juice as a health panacea for everything from cancer and hypertension to sinusitis, ulcers, depression, lupus, herpes, hepatitis and heart disease. Yet is noni truly the next miracle fruit, or just the latest overblown fad?
Laboratory research has confirmed the benefits of some of noni's traditional uses. In animal studies, noni extract was shown to be a natural analgesic, explaining its efficacy for aches and pains. The fruit was also found to have antimicrobial properties against bacteria such as E. coli, which may account for its usefulness in healing wounds and resolving digestive disturbances.
Though more research is needed, early findings suggest that noni is a cancer fighter. In one study, noni juice suppressed tumor growth and prolonged the life of experimental mice with lung cancer. The researchers concluded that noni curbed cancer cells indirectly by stimulating the immune system. Currently, studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine are underway to investigate noni's effects on prostate cancer cells and on breast cancer prevention and treatment.
Noni fruit is a rich source of antioxidants, which are known to lower the risk for infection, heart disease and cancer. However, sweetened noni juice may not pack an antioxidant punch as high as the whole fruit since juice processing typically involves pasteurization and filtering out the noni pulp. Thus, health claims based solely on the commercially available juice form of noni are likely elevated.
Consume the Right Way
Also, to reap the most benefits, noni juice should be consumed on an empty stomach, according to Dr. Ralph M. Heinicke, a prominent biochemist known for his extensive noni research at the University of Hawaii. Heinicke discovered that noni fruit contains a compound called prexeronine that, under the right conditions, is converted into an alkaloid known as xeronine. He believed that xeronine acts at cell receptor sites to confer a variety of benefits, from sloughing off dead tissue from burns to aiding the absorption of endorphine (a "feel good" neurotransmitter) to improving digestion. However, if noni juice is taken on a full stomach, the acids in the stomach will destroy the enzyme needed to convert prexeronin to xeronine, eliminating its benefits.
Heinicke's conclusions bear a striking kinship to ancient Polynesian legends. In numerous myths, heroes and heroines survived periods of famine by eating noni, lending a mythic dimension to the hypothesis that noni is best consumed on an empty stomach. So, if you want to try noni, drink a glass of juice half an hour before your breakfast. While the jury is still out on noni's veracity as a cure-all, you'll be getting a heaping helping of potassium and Vitamin C, the potential for considerable health benefits and a sip of Polynesian paradise to boot.