We, Sri Lankans, associate the Betel leaf quite closely, from chewing it to giving to our elders as a mark of respect. However, other times we see those who chew on the Betel leaves as disgusting and dirty. With their red teeth glaring at us and spitting all over the place, Betel has earned quite a bad reputation.Thus, this week’s FYI decided to bust several of these myths For Your Information.

MYTH: Chewing Betel helps you lose weight
FACT: Chewing betel does prevent the chewer from feeling the pangs of hunger and pain during hard labour in the rice fields under the hot sun. It also makes you feel less thirsty in a tropical work-climate, probably due to the excessive salivating that the chemical compounds of the areca nut provoke.

MYTH: Betel chewing turns your teeth black
FACT: It is not entirely true that betel chewing turns teeth black. Rural folks may not brush their teeth regularly and long-time use of betel does result in reddish-brown stained teeth, admittedly not the nicest sight in view of those bright white smiles from high gloss magazines to which we compare ours. If you see people in Sabah or Sarawak with shiny black teeth you can be sure they have been filed and stained with a special herbal concoction.

This is not the effect of betel chewing, and no brushing with an extra strong tooth paste will make them white again. Fashion changes though, and black teeth are no more ‘in’ than elongated earlobes and plucked eyebrows and eyelashes, once the unmistakable characteristics of many tribes in Borneo (together with tattoos, of course).

MYTH: Betel is highly addictive
FACT: Betel is not highly addictive. Most people would find it easier to renounce betel nut than cigarettes, beer or coffee. But just like the latter, betel nut chewing is a very social activity. Betel nut chewing tears down cultural barriers, breaks the ice and promotes friendship, brings about peace. Betel nuts and sirih leaves play an important role in many rites of passage in the Malay, and the wider Austronesian world.

MYTH: Betel causes tooth decay and cancer
FACT: Betel is supposed to cause tooth decay and cancer of the oral cavity. Maybe the most serious accusation comes from the US Food & Drug Administration: betel contains “a poisonous or deleterious substance [arecoline – a light central nervous stimulant]” and that habitual chewing may be linked to oral carcinoma. Despite its authoritative tone, the FDA does not provide any medical data to support the allegations, and an examination of the available literature indicates that no conclusive studies have been carried out.

A quick web search on chewing betel nut and its cause for cancer reveals nothing compelling. On the contrary: in the respected medical journal The Lancet, Dr. BG Burton-Bradley writes that “Betel chewing is practised daily by no less than 200 million people, the vast majority of whom do not have oral carcinoma” German pharmacologist Hesse states that, “Chronic excesses [of betel] do not cause any permanent health disorders” and Sushruta, the ‘father of Indian medicine’, claims that in the first century AD betel “acted as a general safeguard against disease.” So no reason for you to fear anything if you wish to try this so typical Austronesian habit! Back to my personal experience and from talks to village and educated ‘town’ people alike, in Sabah the general knowledge is that betel nut chewing makes ‘strong teeth’.