Cracking the Betel Nut Mystery
This is the first in a two-part series on the past and present of the areca, better known as the betel nut.
When you think of the frequently addictive substances so many of us use to make it through the day, the first to come to mind are probably the big three: coffee, tea, and tobacco. Propelled by their popularity among European colonists, traders, and consumers, these once regional favorites have spread to every corner of the world. To an extent, theirs is the story of the modern global trading system.
Addictive properties aren’t a guarantee of commercial success, however. Although it is now largely seen as a curiosity, at least outside of Asia, the areca nut was once the most widely available addictive substance in the world. At a time when coffee was still confined to East Africa and the Arab world, tea was popular only in East Asia, and tobacco unknown outside the Americas, areca — or the betel nut, as it is more commonly known in English — was traded and consumed across Southeast and East Asia.
But unlike tobacco, the geographic spread of betel nut consumption has shrunk in the past 500 years. In “Forces of Habit,” historian David T. Courtwright posits three reasons why the betel nut never became popular globally. The first is logistical: The geographic range of betel nut cultivation is limited by climate and other factors, and the traditional preference for consuming the nuts fresh complicated their trade. Moreover, betel nuts are chewed together with fresh betel leaves and lime; the lime is easy to obtain almost anywhere, but fresh betel leaves pose greater challenges.
The second factor Courtwright noted was the occasionally unpleasant consumption experience. People who chew betel nuts for the first time are prone to chest constrictions, sweating, and dizziness. Finally, there were the aesthetic drawbacks. Long-term consumption of betel nuts can cause facial distortion, tooth discoloration, gingivitis, and other side effects.
Not all of these arguments stand up to scrutiny. Both China and India figured out how to transport betel nuts over long distances; the northern Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) even grew accustomed to carrying with them betel nut products grown in the south. As for the initial consumption experience, tobacco and wine are not always enjoyable for the uninitiated. Only the aesthetic side effects are truly convincing, at least if viewed from the perspective of European traders and consumers. Although tobacco use can also be harmful to your appearance and health, the idea of spitting red juice may have been a bridge too far.
Indeed, perhaps the question here isn’t why the betel nut’s popularity has dimmed, but why European colonists preferred tobacco, coffee, and tea. After all, betel nuts weren’t the only addictive substance to fade in popularity over the past several centuries; fellow losers include khat and coca leaves. Early modern Europeans simply were not accustomed to chewing addictive substances for long periods of time; a cultural difference that wedged the first gap between the betel nut and the globe-spanning empires then taking shape.
Tobacco encountered similar problems in the early days of its own world conquest. Members of Columbus’ fleet learned how to smoke tobacco wrapped in maize leaves, and they brought the habit back with them to Spain. But locals associated the practice — and the smoke billowing out of the sailors’ mouths — with paganism; some even reported smokers to the Inquisition.
The shift in attitudes toward tobacco in Europe came about in part due to legends about its medicinal properties, and especially its reputation for calming respiratory discomfort and headaches. European colonists quickly grasped the business opportunities offered by the growing demand for tobacco, and eventually established a highly profitable planting, processing, transportation, and sales system that made the plant a global commodity. By contrast, the less addictive betel nut had lower profit margins, and consequently colonists in Southeast Asia were less driven to explore new processing technologies and business models.
As for coffee and tea, Europe had a long history of alcohol consumption, and alcohol was not only a source of pleasure but also a way to supplement clean water. In a gradually urbanizing and industrializing society, however, alcohol became associated with a lack of virtue and was seen as unconducive to labor. Tea, access to which was guaranteed by the growing colonial trade of the East India Company in India, China, and elsewhere, was de-Orientalized in a way betel nuts never were, and eventually came to be seen as a healthier, sober alternative to alcohol.
Another factor was the way trade in these commodities dovetailed with that other great colonial cash crop: sugar. From the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th, sugar consumption rose rapidly in Western Europe. As a foodstuff that appeals to the human desire for sweet flavors, sugar was combined with milk to make colonial products like tea and coffee more palatable, laying the foundation for beverages that remain popular today.
Ultimately, the diverging fates of tobacco, coffee, and tea on the one hand, and betel nuts, khat, and coca leaves on the other, boil down to the decisions taken by a handful of European tastemakers. As Courtwright points out, historically speaking, if an addictive substance was to achieve global popularity, it first had to become a commonly accepted drug or recreational substance in Western Europe. Because the colonial powers in Southeast Asia, including Portugal, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, did not import betel nut culture back to Europe, they doomed it to a marginalized existence.
Even worse for the betel nut, new advances in drug making mean that, if a plant-based addictive substance did not secure its status as a global commodity between the 16th century and the early 20th century, it permanently lost its chance at global popularity. Liggett & Myers Tobacco, an American tobacco company, actually launched a betel nut product called Betel Morsels in 1969, but their ambitious plans came to nothing. By that point, the betel nut was no longer only competing with tobacco, tea, coffee, and alcohol, but also with new, far more addictive chemical substances. More recent research and reports on the carcinogenicity of the betel nut — and the regulations issued in response — are only the last nail in its coffin.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A farmer holds betel nuts in Qionghai, Hainan province, 2021. VCG)