Once you visit Yap, you will see that almost everyone on the island is chewing a small green nut, filled with a white powder and wrapped in a leaf. Most people add tobacco to their chew, and some soak this tobacco in vodka before using it.
There is no age limit to chewing betel nut – young or old, chewing betel nut is the main habit on the island.
Chewing betel nut actually means chewing the seeds of the areca palm, which is not really a nut but a drupe.
People on Yap Island enjoy their daily betel nuts fresh, while other Asians chew it dried, adding spices for extra flavoring.
On Yap Island, the nut usually gets split in half. Some people take out the soft inside and throw it away. They then add lime (calcium hydroxide), a caustic white powder produced locally by burning harvested staghorn corals (acropora cervicornis) at a high temperature. Finally, they wrap the nut in a betel leaf (Piper betel), a vine leaf from the piperacea family, which also includes pepper and kava plants.
While you may read of the Betel Nut here for the first time, the nut is known all over Asia. An estimated 90 million people use betel nuts on daily basis as a stimulant and for medical reasons, mainly for intestinal parasites and tapeworms.
Archeological evidence from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines suggests that the betel nut has been used for at least 4,000 years.
As a stimulant, the betel nut with lime and leaf has a mild effect, causing a warming sensation in the body and a slightly heightened alertness, although the effect varies from person to person. It can be compared with drinking a cup of coffee.
Because the effect is sometimes considered too mild, people on the island are adding tobacco and sometimes tobacco soaked in vodka to their chew. These ingredients significantly boost the betel nut’s stimulating effect.
Aside from tannins (also found in red wine) the betel nut contains gallic acid (found in tea leaves) and the three main alkaloids, arecoline, arecaidine and guvacine, which are responsible for the nut’s stimulating effect. Other stimulating substances from the alkaloid family are caffeine, nicotine, cocaine & atropine, to name but a few. In the betel nut, arecoline is the main stimulant and is most comparable to nicotine. The stimulating effect is mainly caused by the vasoconstrictive properties of the alkaloids described.
Once people start to chew and mix nut, leaf, lime and saliva, the mixture turns a deep red and stains both teeth and tongue accordingly. Most Yapese who chew on a daily basis have dark red, almost black teeth.
As chewing betel nut produces a lot of saliva, people have to spit often. In public places, government buildings, and the hospital, spitting is not permitted and “Do not spit here” signs are posted as reminders.
But chewing betel nut comes at a price. The International Agency for Cancer Research considers the areca nut carcinogenic. It leads mainly to mouth, pharynx, esophagus and stomach cancers. Studies have shown that adding tobacco and caustic lime increase the risk of cancer. Continuous betel nut use may also cause hypertension, tachycardia, and have effects on blood sugar levels, which may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
In spite of its mild stimulating effect, the betel nut, aka, areca nut ,is not a forbidden drug, and is not listed on any international codex for controlled substances.