This tropical fruit can fix what ails you
by Wendy C. Smith
If one hangs out in health food stores and food co-ops long enough, a vast new array of fruits and vegetables will eventually find their way into the kitchen or at least into the vocabulary. There are quite a lot of fruits and vegetables that a girl growing up in a small town in East Tennessee is likely to miss, things like bok choy, radicchio, lemongrass, watercress, plantains, nori, gogi and mangosteen. Although there’s nothing wrong with corn and potatoes, many of these exotic foods are praised in cultures other than mainstream America for both their taste and health value.
The one I find really interesting at the moment is the aforementioned mangosteen. It is known as the “Queen of fruits” and the “food of the Gods.” It is the national fruit of Thailand, where it goes by the name mang khut. It is made into drinks, dried, cooked or eaten raw. Queen Victoria of England used to offer knighthood to anyone who would bring her the elusive fruit. Aside from having many uses and tasting good, the mangosteen has been used in Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and Asian folk medicine for thousands of years.
The mangosteen is an ultra-tropical tree that requires a wet, lowland tropical climate. The plants die at temperatures above 41 degrees C and sunburn easily. Its origin is probably Southeast Asia, but the trees are now grown in India, the East Indies, Indonesia, Brazil, Central America, Hawaii and other tropical areas. I had never heard of it until recently, but I discovered that the mangosteen is one of the more widely recognized and popular tropical fruits. (Note to self, spend more time in the tropics.) The trees have large, shiny wide leaves and fruit twice a year in the spring and fall. The ripe mangosteen fruit is dark red or yellow (depending on the variety) and has a thick (up to 8mm thick), tannic rind that makes it resistant to insects. Inside the rind are 4-8 edible segments, like an orange, that are pinkish in color and very sweet and juicy.
Mangosteen fruits have been shipped to China for years for medicinal use. The rind is sliced, dried and powdered and used as a remedy for dysentery, cystitis and chronic diarrhea. It is also made into an ointment and used to treat eczema and other skin disorders. Malaysians grind the leaves to make a mixture that is used to heal the wound of circumcision and a root extract is used to regulate menstruation. And in the Philippinos the leaves and bark are rendered to treat thrush, dysentery and urinary problems. Interestingly enough, the rind contains substances known as mangostin and xanthones. There is some evidence that mangostin is a slight central nervous system depressant and causes a rise in blood pressure. Mangostin is probably best known for its high antioxidant value. Antioxidants not only reduce inflammation (and inflammation is getting a great deal of press as of late as the root cause of many chronic illnesses and ailments), but also reduce free radicals which contribute to a myriad of problems including reduced cell functionality. In one German study, mangostin was found to have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-ulcer effects in rats. Xanthone is one of several naturally derived substances that shows some cancer killing potential as at least one study has linked xanthone with killing cancer cells and inhibiting Cox 1 and Cox 2 enzymes. The rind of the mangosteen was also shown to inhibit histamines (inflammation and allergies) and prostaglandin E2 synthesis in a study by the Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Tohoku University in Japan. It is also known to have antiseptic, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.
The fruit of the mangosteen is often referred to as one of the most powerful natural antioxidants discovered yet. This is good because of the healing properties of antioxidants. At the same time, however, the body can only absorb so many antioxidants and excretes the rest. Still, because so many health problems are associated with inflammation, it’s probably wise to try to reduce internal inflammation as much as possible. Mangosteen is also touted as being able to reduce the side effects of cancer treatments. There is also some thought that it might help prevent certain types of cancer as well. Because of how mangosteen is used in other medicine systems, it makes sense that it could reduce side effects of treating cancer. And since some types of cancer are thought to be caused by inflammation, perhaps the antioxidant properties of this fruit could be of some consequence.
Mangosteen juice is the most popular way to ingest mangosteen. This is probably because the mangosteen juice is quite confectionary and delicious; it’s already prepared and not many stores carry the actual fruit. It’s definitely worth trying and if there are added health benefits, it just makes it even better. The interesting thing about food is that it has been used by other countries for centuries as medicine. It’s funny that we are just now getting around to that way of thinking.