Aloe (Aloe vera)

Aloe (Aloe vera)

Although originating in the hot and arid climes of northern Africa, to most of us Aloe Vera is no longer an exotic stranger. Not only do we see it advertised as a popular ingredient in a multitude of household products, ranging from washing-up liquid to latex gloves, and even razors, but many of us are familiar with the plant itself. Aloe Vera is a perennial succulent, undemanding and not particularly eye-catching. It vaguely resembles a small version of the century plant, so common in the North American Southwest. However, despite the superficial similarities, Aloe is an entirely different species of plant. Like the century plant, it belongs to the order of Asparagales but it does not share the same genus. Formerly broadly ascribed to the Lily family, taxonomists have now reassigned it to the genus of Asphodelaceae.

The fleshy, succulent leaves contain a clear, gooey gel. The leaf margins bear ‘sharp teeth’ that act quite effectively as a deterrent against casually browsing animals. Aloe loves hot and dry conditions and appears to wilt only if it receives excessive amounts of water, or if exposed to freezing temperatures. If grown in the right conditions, that is, mostly ignored, the plant will do fine. If it is really happy with its care and location, it may even send up a central shoot once a year, sporting short, tubular, yellowish flowers around the upper part of the spike.

There are about 400 species in the Aloe genus, but for medicinal purposes, Aloe Vera is the most useful. Mature plants of about 4-5 years are preferred as they provide the most potent healing compounds.

 

Ecology:

Aloe Vera is native to arid regions of north-eastern and southern parts of Africa and Madagascar. Thanks to its tremendous value as a healing plant, it has quickly spread to arid regions throughout the world. Today it is widely cultivated in similar environments pan-globally, including Mexico, USA, Japan, and China.

History

As is often the case with so-called ‘miracle plants’, their exaggerated reputation actually discredits them. Aloe Vera is a truly wonderful plant with no shortage of members to its fan club. It has a very ancient, well-established reputation as a medicinal plant, particularly useful for skin conditions, minor cuts, abrasions, and burns. The dried latex, which is not the same as the gel, but instead derives from the yellow juice contained in the pericyclic tubules of the inner leaf, is a well-known laxative.

Despite the fact that Aloe has been in documented use for at least 3500 years, controversial and contradictory information abounds. The earliest mention can be found in the famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1500 BC and which is widely regarded as one of the earliest precursors of what was to become the western Materia Medica. However, it is more than likely that it was commonly used for centuries before it was recorded. In fact, it seems more likely that Aloe was such a commonly used plant that earlier documents (of which few have survived) never even bothered to mention it. In the hot and dry countries of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Aloe Vera served as a soothing household remedy for sunburns and a ready-to-use moisturizing cosmetic lotion.

Some of the confusions surrounding this plant stem from the fact that it is frequently mistaken for lignum Aloes or Wood-Aloes, which is an entirely different species of plant. Although abundantly mentioned in the Bible as an incense ingredient and constituent of embalming oils, Wood-Aloes, in fact, is not even of Mediterranean origin. In fact, it is a tree belonging to the genus Aquilaria, known as Agarwood that is native to Southeast Asia. While the latex of Aloe Vera does dry and transforms into a hard substance, sometimes referred to as Aloe resin, it is not a particularly aromatic substance and has never been used as incense.

As mentioned above, Aloe Vera’s best known and most widely documented use is as an external application – usually in the form of a commercially produced gel. Such products do not offer quite the same benefits as the fresh gel obtained from a freshly cut leaf. The reason for this is simple. The natural jelly-like substance is not very stable and deteriorates quickly when exposed to air (oxidation). Commercial manufacturers have to process the gel in order to preserve the valuable properties and extend the shelf-life. But processing rarely enhances a natural product. More often it reduces a ‘miracle herb’ to a mediocre substance with questionable benefits. By the time it has been rendered into a substance that is suitable for use as an ingredient for creams and lotions, the remaining benefit will be minimal.

And this sheds some light on some of the rather puzzling research results: although Aloe Vera has a glowing reputation in folk usage, when tested in laboratories the results have often been fairly disappointing. Why would that be? The answer seems to lie not so much with the plant, in the laboratory conditions and processing methods. Lab conditions do not simulate traditional, real-life use very well. Instead, keen to discover and exploit a plants’ ‘active principles’, extracts are concocted that are supposed to concentrate the potency – but invariably destroy the plants’ natural synergy. Also, when the actual gel was used instead of extracted components, the quality was questionable. Conventional methods to stabilize and preserve the gel involve pasteurizing, which means the gel is heated to a high temperature, thus destroying many of the more sensitive constituents. Furthermore, preservatives are added, which further adulterate the gel. So, while many research results seem to demonstrate that much of Aloe’s benefits may be hype, what they actually show is that we lack proper processing methods to preserve the natural composition of fresh Aloe Vera gel.

Aloe vera plantation

A recent trend has popularised ‘Aloe vera juice’ (as well as a myriad spin-off products that contain the juice). This product is always processed and often mixed with sundry flavourings of dubious origin to make it more palatable and to extend its shelf-life. In its natural form, Aloe juice (gel) is rather bitter and not exactly a pleasure to gulp down, which is probably why there is no mention of this particular use in any of the traditional medical texts, except perhaps as an emergency measure or ‘heroic’ medicine to treat intestinal parasites or gastric infections.

Due to enzymatic processes oxidation sets in as soon as the leaves are cut. Careful handling during the harvesting process is of utmost importance. Once cut, the leaves are taken to a processing facility as quickly as possible, ideally in a refrigerated truck. At the processing plant, the leaves are filleted by hand to remove the outer, green skin. Unfortunately, most of the beneficial compounds are concentrated just beneath that outer skin and filleting removes many of these compounds and discards them along with the skin.

Recently, more efficient processing methods have been developed, which utilise the whole leaf and by removing only the green parts of the leaf in a cold process that involves a cellulose dissolving substance. This maintains the biochemical activity in its entirety. The resulting gel is yellow in colour, as it also retains the aloin, the bitter, laxative compound found just beneath the surface. Further processing involves adding various anti-oxidants since any oxygen present in the gel promotes breakdown and deterioration, as well as providing a breeding ground for aerobic bacteria. Finally, the pulp is separated from the liquid part, the aloin is filtered out by adding a carbon compound that is subsequently removed. To destroy any bacteria the liquid is then passed through tubes and exposed to ultraviolet light.

This method still requires stabilising compounds to be added to the final product, but it is a great improvement over conventional processing techniques that only processed the gel and applied a heat treatment to sterilize the liquid.

Another whole-leaf extraction method involves the same cold process leaf processing as the first step, but then uses a short, low temperature controlled sterilisation techniques to kill off bacteria, without adding chemicals. The resulting gel is then concentrated in a vacuum chamber and dehydrated to yield a water-soluble compound that retains the biochemical activity, without the need for additional preservatives. This method is currently regarded as the most efficient, even though heat is used in the process. The heating is closely controlled and never exceeds 65°C or lasts for more than 15 minutes at a time. Longer exposure or higher temperatures would degrade the final product.

Thus, it should be obvious that what is available at the store is not the same as what you get from the plant and that it is important to read the label so as to gain insight into the specific processing procedures that have been applied to the product.

Producers have established a self-regulating body to certify Aloe Vera products according to their own standards of quality control. Their seal of approval gives a certain degree of reassurance that the products do contain what the labels claim. However, there are even differences between certified companies, which are largely due to different methods of processing.

Aloe vera cut leaf

Medicinal Uses

Parts used: resin, gel extracted from the leaf

Constituents: Hydroxyanthracene derivatives of the anthrone type (principally barbaloin); 7-hydroxyaloin isomers, aloe-emodin, chrysophanol, and their glycosides; chromone derivatives (aloesin and its derivatives aloeresins A and C, and the aglycone aloesone. Gel: glucomannan (a polysaccharide), steroids, organic acids, enzymes, antibiotic principles, amino acids, saponins, minerals.

Actions: latex: cathartic, laxative, emmenagogue, digestive stimulant

Gel: immune system stimulant, skin healing, anti-irritant, moisturizing, anti-cancer

Indications

Traditionally, Aloe Vera gel has been used as a soothing topical application for sunburns and minor burns, abrasions, acne, psoriasis, shingles and even cold sores. The gel can be squeezed from the fresh leaf and applied directly to affected areas. Its skin repair qualities on burns and sunburns are truly remarkable – healing occurs quickly and without scarring, which is why Aloe Vera is also used to reduce scarring and stretch marks. The gel even seems to protect the skin against immune suppressant effect of ultraviolet light – thus it not only makes an excellent ‘after sun care’ application but may also be useful as a protective sunscreen lotion. It is a highly valued additive for cosmetic preparations that can moisturize and rejuvenate the skin by stimulating the synthesis of elastin and collagen.

External application of Aloe gel penetrates the skin directly and produces a soothing, pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effect on arthritic joints and tendonitis.

For internal use, Aloe Vera latex preparations are usually mixed with antispasmodic herbs to reduce the spasmodic effect of its laxative action. Used by itself it would produce a rather cathartic and painful cramping effect. The latex also stimulates the uterus thus promoting menstrual flow. Laxatives containing Aloe latex should be avoided during pregnancy.

Used internally, high-quality Aloe vera juice can stimulate the immune system. Laboratory studies on mice have shown it to be effective in the treatment of certain types of cancer and HIV and further studies are on the way.

Aloe juice seems to have a healing and balancing effect on the digestive system, improving absorption of nutrients and eliminating toxins. This improves general cell nutrition and activates the body’s own healing powers. It can relieve gastrointestinal problems associated with peptic or duodenal ulcers, improve regularity and enhance energy levels. It is also used to soothe colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. In fact, many chronic conditions have a component of digestive imbalance, which is apt to trigger secondary symptoms due to malabsorption and cellular malnutrition. Aloe vera juice can help to restore balance to the entire digestive system.

Furthermore, Aloe Vera juice also appears to have a beneficial effect on the liver and kidneys. It seems to reduce levels of blood lipids that are liable to clog up the arteries and may lead to coronary heart disease. It also seems to have a positive effect on blood sugar levels, which can make it a useful nutritional supplement in case of diabetes.

Caution:

Do not use Aloe Vera based laxatives during pregnancy. The juice may also be adulterated or contain levels of aloin above what would be deemed safe during pregnancy.

If you are on prescription medication consult with your health advisor regarding possible interference with other medicines when using Aloe Vera internally.

The quality of Aloe Vera gel or juice very much depends on the manufacturing process and some products that are currently on the market have little or no medicinal value. Research the products carefully before spending a lot of money on what may turn out to be an inert substance. Whole-leaf extracts are recommended. Look for the International Aloe Science Council certificate for quality assurance.

Grow your own

Everybody should have an Aloe Vera plant on their kitchen window sill. It is without a doubt the best instant remedy for burns. Growing Aloe Vera is easy, as it is a very undemanding plant. Just don’t over-water it and protect it against freezing temperatures. It loves the sun but will grow in semi-shade as well. It does not need particularly rich soil. Well-draining, sandy soil will do.

Home-made cosmetics

If you wish to incorporate Aloe vera gel in your own home-made skin-care products, you can use the gel to replace all or a portion of the liquid called for in your recipe. However, beware that unprocessed Aloe Vera gel is not very stable and won’t keep long, so make small batches only, store in the fridge and use up quickly. For maximum benefit, skin care preparations should contain at least 20-40% of gel. Purists may opt to simply cut a bit of leaf off and to rub it straight onto the skin.

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Description:

A slender, graceful palm of the Arecaceae family, Açai is native to the seasonally inundated lowland forests of eastern South America, especially Brazil. Several stems sprout from its base and it can grow to about 15-25m high. It takes 4-5 years to mature. The roots are perfectly adapted to the seasonally inundated and waterlogged conditions of its habitat, by developing special root structures known as pneumatophores, better known as aerial roots, although some prefer to call them aerating roots. These vertically erect, pencil-like shoots grow from the submerged horizontal roots that are below the soil. They not only help to stabilize the plant and protect the soil from erosion, but also help the roots to obtain oxygen as they will be exposed to the ground above the mud or flooded ground.

 

The leaves of the Açai palm are typical, pinnate palm fronds that arise from a reddish crown. In the course of a year, it produces 4-8 bunches of fruit, with yields being heaviest during the dry season, and most flowering mostly occurring during the wet season. The fruits form bunches of small, purple-black drupes, each with a large stone in its center and a minimal covering of purple-red pulp. Bunches can weigh up to 6kg each. The fruits are an important food source for rodents and birds, thus helping to spread the seeds. Thanks to its general usefulness this palm is often planted near human habitations.

 

History

Açai juice and smoothies are all the rave among health-conscious consumers in the US. But in the Amazon it has long been a staple – it is so ubiquitous and consumed in such large quantities, especially among the indigenous people and ribereños, the river communities of the lowland rainforest, that it is often referred to as ‘poor man’s food’.

 

Recently its superfood properties have been hailed, and successfully marketed to the young fitness crowd. Amazing qualities are ascribed to it – like most superfoods it is said to improve everything from the tone of your skin to your sex drive and have anti-cancer properties, too. No wonder it sells like hotcakes. If you google Açai you will instantly get a return of 5 million (!) pages – mostly advertising some novel product based on the magic berry. There is no end to the hype. But is it really true? Searching for solid evidence that is based on actual studies, one is baffled to find – precious little. There has been almost no research on this fruit at all. The hype appears to mostly be marketing froth. A new food fad is born.

 

Not that the fruit is bad for you, far from it. It does indeed have quite an impressive amount of anthocyanin, the antioxidant substance that gives it its colour – the same compound that achieves this effect in Bilberries. The actual amount of this substance is said to be twice as high in Açai than in blueberries, which does seem impressive. However, it comes in a very unstable form, which rapidly deteriorates after picking. The berries also contain protein, calcium, Vitamin B1, A, and E, as well as a good amount of calories – but despite the superlative claims its overall profile is not that remarkable. In the Amazon, although widely popular as a food/drink stuff, the berry has never been used medicinally.

 One of the most common ways to consume it is as a kind of porridge. The berries are soaked in water in order to soften the outer skin so that the pulp can easily be separated from the seed. The resulting mash is a deep purple, shiny thick mass, which may be mixed with the pulp of manioc, a starchy vegetable, to make a filling porridge. The mash is also frequently eaten with granola and other fruits as an energizing ‘health food’. Or, it is diluted with water or other fruit juices to make the famous energy drink that has recently become so popular among urbanites throughout the Americas.

 

The rapid nutrient deterioration is not of great concern in the Amazon, where it is eaten pretty much right from the tree. But to preserve any of its potential benefits for consumers on the other side of the planet, it is necessary to preserve the fruit pulp for export. The usual method is to pasteurize it, which, however, is not terribly gentle and destroys some of the more fragile compounds. It is then frozen or freeze-dried, which further reduces any potential benefits. Thus, it seems like Brazilians are reaping most of the benefit, providing the juice is made in clean condition with clean water and equipment, compared to the processed derivatives found in juice bars or on supermarket shelves thousands of miles from the Amazon.

 But business is booming. Dietary crazes have a way of catching on that defies any rationality. In Belem, the main market town in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon has an area solely dedicated to the sale of Açai berries, known as ‘Feira do Açai’, where more than 100 vendors sell 200,000kg of berries PER DAY during the dry season. And there is talk of substantially increasing business by planting more Açai trees. (One project plans to plant 5 billion Açai trees over the next 10 years!)

Açai is also economically important for other reasons. It is currently the main source of palm hearts, locally known as ‘palmito‘, which is part of the traditional Amazonian diet, although not significant from a nutritional point of view. Palm hearts also have a sizeable export market, mostly in France. Originally Açai’s cousin ‘Euterpe edulis‘ was harvested to obtain the hearts, but since it only grows one stem and the tree has to be cut and killed in order to obtain the precious ‘heart’ harvest from this species proved highly unsustainable. Euterpe oleracea, on the other hand, produces several stems and cutting one or two encourages the growth of new shoots. Thus, Euterpe oleracea has now largely replaced E. edulis as a source of palm hearts.

 The species is also important as a source of palm fronds, which are used for thatching roofs. A secondary product derived from Açai that plays an even greater role is unlikely to ever become a hit abroad – even though it is deemed a delicacy in the Amazon: the grubs of the palm beetle (Rhynchophorus palm beetle), which although highly nutritious and rich in protein is unlikely to win much favour in any of the superfood markets abroad. To encourage the beetle the cut-down stumps of Açai are urinated on, which apparently creates an ideal environment for the beetle to lay its eggs. A few weeks later 3-4 pounds of nice, fat beetle grub larvae are harvested and consumed with relish.

 Some environmentalists welcome the growing popularity of Açai, as they see it as a sustainable non-timber forest product that can be successfully marketed to bring much needed economic benefits to poor forest and river-dwelling communities without threatening the forest. However, whether the production will, in fact, be sustainable in the long run remains to be seen. The habitat of this palm is limited to riverine locations and although it occurs naturally and prolifically, forming extensive groves, it is not clear where plantations will be established. Will established forest have to be cleared in order to grow this superfood for export, or will existing soy fields be converted to Açai? Also, as yet there is little evidence that sustainable management and harvesting methods actually much employed. Instead, palm heart harvesting is still often done by clear-cutting large areas instead of just taking out individual trunks. There is some hope that Açai berries will eventually far outweigh the market for palm hearts, in terms of their economic importance, but it looks as though there will always be a market for them, both locally and abroad.

 As for the current Açai craze – it is doubtful that it will last. Marketing buffs are very good at creating a buzz – preferably by throwing some sex into the marketing spin. The technique is not a new one. Even tobacco was once hyped and marketed along the very same lines. That particular craze had a long-lasting effect, mainly thanks to the addictive nature of tobacco, but exotic fruit crazes come and go – noni, mangosteen, kiwi – they all were once perceived as nutritional miracle bombs. No doubt they have their virtues, but are they really worth the money that millions of consumers are prepared to pay for the promise of ‘youth in a bottle’? Personally, I would prefer the local heroes – wild blueberries for example, fresh from the bush, no processing required and all nutritional benefits intact.

 

Medicinal uses:

 Constituents:

 1-4% protein, 7-11% fats, 25% sugar, 0.05% calcium, 0.033% phosphorous, and 0.0009% iron. It also has some sulphur, traces of vitamin B1 and some vitamin A and E. It also delivers 88 to 265 calories per 100 grams, depending on the preparation method. In addition to the standard vitamins and minerals found in most fruits, the main plant chemicals in Açai fruit include epicatechin, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, gallic acid, (+)-catechin, protocatechuic acid, ellagic acid, p-coumaric acid, ferulic acid, vanillic acid, cyanidin, and pelaronidin 3-glucoside. (source: rain-tree database)

Medicinal uses:

In Brazil the oil of the fruit is obtained and used to treat diarrhea; a decoction of the roots is considered beneficial in cases of jaundice and boosts blood production. The grated fruit rind is infused to make a wash for skin ulcers, and the seeds are crushed and prepared as an infusion for treating fevers. In the Peruvian Amazon, an infusion of the crushed, toasted seeds is used to ally fevers, and a decoction of the root is used for malaria, diabetes, hepatitis and jaundice, hair loss, hemorrhages, liver and kidney diseases, menstrual pain, and muscle pain. (source: rain-tree)

 

 References:

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%C3%A7a%C3%AD_palm

Rain-Tree database https://www.rain-tree.com

 Total oxidant scavenging capacities of Euterpe oleracea Mart. fruits, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, Volume 56, Issue 1 February 2005 , pages 53 – 64

 Farbatlas Tropenpflanzen, Andreas Bärtels, Eugen Ulmer Verlag 1996