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noni fruit and juice
Experts in the psychology of human error have long been aware that even highly trained experts are easily misled when they rely on personal experience and informal decision rules to infer the causes of complex events. --Barry Beyerstein
Noni is one of several common names for the fruit of the Morinda citrifolia tree.* Noni juice is said to cure arthritis, cancer, high cholesterol, AIDS, diabetes, obesity, impotence, and many other diseases.* Several years ago, while touring the Waipiʻo valley on the Big Island of Hawaii, our guide picked a noni fruit from the ground, opened it, and let us have a whiff of this very stinky fruit. He said that people were paying good money on the mainland for noni products to keep them young, beautiful, and disease-free. Someday, I told myself, I should find out more about the noni fruit. A few years later I read about a Catholic priest in a remote corner of county Donegal, Ireland, who was selling noni juice to his parishioners as a cancer cure for €50 a bottle as part of a multi-level marketing scheme. I wrote a short piece on Fr. Hugh Sweeney and his noni nonsense in a 2009 newsletter. It turns out that noni juice and other noni-based personal care and dietary supplement products have been sold internationally for many years by the multi-level marking company now known as Morinda (formerly Tahitian Noni International). I have no idea how many Catholic priests in Ireland got involved in the noni MLM, but this one had a bit of a history as a fraud: he was listed as a tax defaulter in 2004 over a bogus nonresident account and paid over a €125,000 settlement to the Revenue Commissioners.* It's rather refreshing to hear of a priest whose crimes didn't involve abusing children. I wonder if noni juice can cure pedophilia.
I'd forgotten about noni until recently when someone emailed me a glorious testimonial for the healing powers of the fruit. 'Eric' claims he has "heard many cancer success stories with noni." He testifies that he's kept a noni fruit in a small jar for fifteen years with no visible sign of mold and that he's used his non-moldy fruit for burns that would have required a skin graft otherwise. Eric also claims that he cured his viral pneumonia with "natural healthy immune boosting foods and supplements." He says he used his noni to cure some mysterious illness his sister contracted after getting vaccinated for a trip to South Africa. She suffered for fourteen years, he says, until he gave her the juice. He thinks it stimulated her immune system. Eric also claims a friend's breast cancer was cured with noni juice. All these claims stimulated my crap detector and led me to do more reading about noni and post this entry on another natural miracle plant that baffles scientists and has Big Pharma squirming (as the National Enquirer or Daily Mail might put it).
As noted above, I've seen and smelled a noni fruit. I understand why it is known mainly for its putrid smell and awful taste among the natives of islands where the noni fruit tree grows. How did this stinky fruit get marketed as a panacea and cure-all among true believers? Perhaps the appeal was the old saw about something that smells and tastes so bad must be good for you. My best guess is that you can sell anything to a large international market just by claiming it is natural, can't be patented by Big Pharma [though noni juice as antiangiogenic has been patented], and is not recommended by science-based medical practitioners or nutritionists. You can add to the attraction of your snake oil by claiming that it was used by natives centuries ago who discovered the secret of its powers to heal every kind of illness. And despite the disdain shown for science by those who sell and buy this kind of stuff, there always seems to be a blurb added about its nutrients. Eric claims that noni is an adaptogen, an immune booster, anti-viral, and antibacterial agent. (As I understand it, an adaptogen is an herb that reduces stress.) There doesn't seem to be much of nutritional value in noni, however. The University of Hawaii posts a Nutritional Analysis of Hawaiian Noni (Pure Noni Fruit Juice). One of the major online sellers of noni juice products has a Noni Juice Facts and Benefits page but the only fact it presents is that there are many satisfied customers:
Noni juice facts and benefits are always a hot topic. While there has been a lot of discussion about the truth concerning Noni, a lot of Noni’s potential still remains in the dark.
Healing Noni believes that the proof of the power of Noni juice lies in the effects that our customers experience first hand. We have cultivated a strong appreciation of noni for what it is and what it has been shown to do and we welcome you to explore with us those results.
In other words, "we don't have any facts to back up our claims that noni juice is good for you but you suckers think it is and that's good enough for us to stay in business for a long, long time."
Like many other fruits and berries, noni contains several phytochemicals, non-nutritive plant chemicals that many people believe have health benefits that range from helping with infections to preventing or slowing the growth of cancer. Scientists at the Linus Pauling Institute note, however:
Because plant-based foods are complex mixtures of bioactive compounds, information on the potential health effects of individual phytochemicals is linked to information on the health effects of foods that contain those phytochemicals.*
Research on the noni, however, is not that extensive. Puna Noni, a noni cancer research page, reports that a study on cancer in mice published in 1994 in Proceedings of the Western Pharmacology Society found that mice injected with cancer cells lived longer if treated with noni juice. The experiment was repeated on the mice but in the intervening twenty years apparently no studies have been done on human cancer cells in vitro or in vivo to test the effects of noni juice on cancer. The research team speculated that noni juice "acts as an anti-cancer agent by indirectly enhancing the cancer host's immune system of macrophages and/or lymphocytes." Without further tests, however, this speculative claim should be taken with a grain of salt.
Puna Noni also cites some studies on cells and mice done over thirty years ago, but the main argument on this page is that some scientists think phytochemicals can protect against cancer and stop tumor growth and noni has many phytochemicals. This argument is not very cogent when one considers that there are thousands of phytochemicals but only a few have been studied closely.* I know there are many websites claiming that the science is in and phytochemicals have the potential to:
- Stimulate the immune system
- Block substances we eat, drink and breathe from becoming carcinogens
- Reduce the kind of inflammation that makes cancer growth more likely
- Prevent DNA damage and help with DNA repair
- Reduce the kind of oxidative damage to cells that can spark cancer
- Slow the growth rate of cancer cells
- Trigger damaged cells to commit suicide before they can reproduce
- Help to regulate hormones
What is known is that a diet rich in plant-based foods is good for you. Whether the benefits of such a diet are due to phytochemicals, however, is not known. The University of California at Davis nutrition department has posted a page on phytochemicals.
Epidemiological studies suggest that consumption of a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease [Hung, H.C., et al., Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of major chronic disease. J Natl Cancer Inst, 2004. 96(21): p. 1577-84.]. Unfortunately, there is not yet enough evidence to support the concept that phytochemicals are responsible for these effects. Fruits and vegetables are important sources of a variety of beneficial agents including vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. More research is needed to fully explain the actions of phytochemical compounds in the human body [Halliwell, B., Dietary polyphenols: good, bad, or indifferent for your health? Cardiovasc Res, 2007. 73(2): p. 341-7].
The research is ongoing and it is promising, but it is early days in phytochemical research and really, really early days in noni research.* Noni research on humans is non-existent. All the research so far has been in the lab petri dish and with lab animals (see PubMed for examples). What is known for sure is that noni is high in potassium and sugar. Those with kidney problems or diabetes might approach noni with caution. There have also been reports of liver damage due to noni consumption and interference with coumadin and phenytoin. Also, the antioxidant effects of noni products may hinder chemotherapy and radiation therapy.*
Don't the testimonials make up for the lack of studies on humans?
The short answer is no. Here's why.
- The data from testimonials is always biased and incomplete. Those who were not helped in any way by noni products and those who died while using noni to cure their cancers don't testify.
- The claims that noni cured this or that are all based on post hoc thinking. Just because an event happened after one drank noni juice doesn't prove that the noni juice had anything to do with the event. Your strong conviction that it was the noni juice that healed this or that is irrelevant to whether the juice had anything to do with it. You may have been mistaken about what was wrong with you in the first place and what you actually experienced was not the healing power of noni but the natural healing of the body as it recovered from one of the many illnesses that we humans get and recover from without the help of any medicine or noni juice.
- Barry Beyerstein, in his classic article "Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work" provides a few more reasons for not putting too much faith in testimonials for magic cures: Many diseases are cyclical. Such conditions as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, allergies, and gastrointestinal problems normally have "ups and downs." Naturally, sufferers tend to seek therapy during the downturn of any given cycle. In this way, a bogus treatment will have repeated opportunities to coincide with upturns that would have happened anyway.
- The placebo effect may be responsible. Through suggestion, belief, expectancy, cognitive reinterpretation, and diversion of attention, patients given biologically useless treatments often experience measurable relief. Some placebo responses produce actual changes in the physical condition; others are subjective changes that make patients feel better even though there has been no objective change in the underlying pathology.
- People who hedge their bets credit the wrong thing. If improvement occurs after someone has had both "alternative" and science-based treatment, the fringe practice often gets a disproportionate share of the credit.
- The original diagnosis or prognosis may have been incorrect. Scientifically trained physicians are not infallible. A mistaken diagnosis, followed by a trip to a shrine or an "alternative" healer, can lead to a glowing testimonial for curing a condition that would have resolved by itself. In other cases, the diagnosis may be correct but the time frame, which is inherently difficult to predict, might prove inaccurate.
- You may also be deluding yourself or lying to others about being helped or cured by noni juice. It could be embarrassing to admit you spent a great deal of money on a cure that didn't work.
In the end, belief in the cure-all power of noni juice is based on self-deception, wishful thinking and reliance on one's unqualified interpretation and valuation of personal experience as accurate and sufficient to outweigh a lack of scientific evidence.
Noni Nonsense: Miracle Juice or Scam in a Bottle? by Christopher Wanjek
Super Fruit Juices – The New Snake Oil by Steven Novella
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health page on noni "In laboratory research, noni has shown antioxidant, immune-stimulating, and tumor-fighting properties. These results suggest that noni may warrant further study for conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. However, noni has not been well studied in people for any health condition."
Hornick CA, Myers A, Sadowska-Krowicka H, Anthony CT, Woltering EA. 2003. Department of Physiology, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Inhibition of angiogenic initiation and disruption of newly established human vascular networks by juice from Morinda citrifolia (noni); Angiogenesis. ;6(2):143-9. Promising work with tissue in the lab, but twelve years later there have been no human studies done on noni juice and breast cancer. Apparently, this little study was sufficient to get a patent (US 20040258780 A1): Inhibition of angiogenesis and destruction of angiogenic vessels with extracts of noni juice morinda citrifolia. note: There are several patents for free energy devices. Why are there no free energy devices? You don't need a working model to get a patent. Likewise for medical treatments with things like noni juice. To get this patent, the owners did not have to prove that they've significantly affected angiogenesis in any human being with a quart of noni juice per day. (Dr. Woltering claims a quart per day is the needed dosage to be effective: See his comment on the ACOR.org listserv, Nov. 22, 2015.) Proof of concept seems to be enough.