YOU can say it is like selling ice to an Eskimo.
The humble mangosteen, with its purple husk and sweet-sour white flesh, is a fruit commonly consumed by Singaporeans.
But since last year, mangosteen juice - imported from the United States, no less - has suddenly become the new big thing among health fanatics here.
Mr Donovan Low sells the mangosteen juice XanGo while his diabetic mother, Magdalene, drinks it.
And its fans, ranging from students to housewives, are willing to fork out hefty sums for a daily sip of it. Costing between $37 and $68 for a 750ml or 1-litre bottle, the drink is available in organic food stores or through multi-level marketing companies.
There are at least six such products in the market. The main players are Vemma and XanGo, launched here last January and December respectively. Both companies say the juice, which is made from the whole fruit including the husk, has been flying off the shelves.
Mr Kenneth Koh, Vemma's chief executive officer for Asia, says turnover has jumped from $80,000 a month last year to over $270,000 now.
He claims Vemma can improve blood circulation so well that 'you can feel the immediate effects within five to 10 minutes' of drinking the juice.
'Your face will feel flushed and warm,' he says.
About 2,500 bottles are sold monthly by its 10,000 distributors, one of whom is Mr Donovan Low.
The 22-year-old started selling the drink last December after trying the product himself. He has been suffering from aches since undergoing a knee operation last April.
He claims that the pain has eased a lot but admits he is 'not too sure' if it is due to the juice.
Nonetheless, he has introduced his mother, who suffers from diabetes, to the drink and is monitoring her progress.
XanGo's South-east Asia general manager Tai Tolman also says sales figures in Singapore have been 'excellent', growing 10 to 40 per cent every month.
According to him, even doctors and nurses are among its network of over 2,000 distributors.
'We knew XanGo would be well received, but not on this scale. It is phenomenal,' he says.
|Touted for its rich source of xanthones, which contain antioxidants, the fad began in the United States a few years ago. It has since spread all over the world, including South-east Asia, where the tropical fruit originates. The juice comprises both its husk, where most of the xanthones are found, as well as the white pulpy fruit inside. The drink is usually a blend of various fruit juices to balance the bitter taste of the husk.
The fruit is native to areas from Iran to the Himalayas in northern India. The juice was introduced here about three years ago but became popular only last year after its potential disease-fighting health benefits were highlighted in the media. Some studies suggest that the juice may contain almost three times the total antioxidant ability compared with the same quantity of green tea or red wine. Pomegranates also have almost as much potassium as bananas. The whole fruit (including the shell) or just the fruit inside may be used in the juice, depending on the brand.
Bilberries, which look like blueberries, are rarely farmed and grow mostly in the wild in Europe. It has been used as a medicinal herb since the 16th century and is used in connection with vascular and blood disorders. Containing vitamins A and C, the fruit is said to be good for maintaining sharp vision and the repair of tissue cells and blood vessels.
GOJI BERRY JUICE
The origins of goji berry, or wolfberry, are unclear, although many believe it is native to China, where it is primarily grown. It became widely known in the West only in recent years but it needs no introduction in this part of the world. Used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine, soups and teas, it is said to improve eyesight. Like mangosteen juice, some goji berry juice products are a blend of multiple fruit juices such as apple and pear.
SEA BUCKTHORN JUICE
The fruit, which grows on shrubs, is native to Europe and Asia. An ancient Tibetan medicinal text devotes 30 of its 158 chapters to sea buckthorn, referring to its capacity to strengthen the spleen and promote blood circulation. The orange-coloured fruit is also said to boost one's immune system as it is rich in vitamin C.
The oval-shaped, prickly fruit from French Polynesia was all the rage in the late 1990s. The juice is said to be able to help reduce high blood pressure and relieve arthritic pain as it contains high levels of antioxidants.
ALOE VERA JUICE
There are more than 200 species of the cactus-like plant, which originates from Africa. The ancient Egyptians were the first people to use aloe vera for healing wounds. Its juice, mostly extracted from the whole leaf, is said to be good for maintaining and restoring the balance of stomach acids. The fad peaked around 1999.
Wheatgrass is the shoot of the wheat plant harvested before it turns into grain. The hottest health product in 2004, it was seen in everything ranging from capsules, tablets and tea bags to canned drinks. It is said to be a powerful detoxifier and help reduce the risk of cancer.
Rich in antioxidants
SO WHAT is so special about mangosteen that has its advocates from the United States and Germany to Japan and the Philippines all going ga-ga over it?
One word: Xanthones.
Found in plant food, the chemical compound contains antioxidants which are said to help maintain intestinal health, strengthen the immune system and neutralise free radicals (groups of atoms that disrupt cell reproduction), among other things.
And mangosteen is chock-full of xanthones, containing 40 out of 200 known xanthones, says Associate Professor Benny Tan from the department of pharmacology at the National University of Singapore.
'This is a high proportion compared to other fruit and vegetables which have them in smaller amounts and variety,' he says.
For example, tomatoes and eggplants contain some xanthones, too.
But before you rush out to stock up on mangosteen juice - or mangosteens, for that matter - dietitians say there are a few things you should bear in mind.
One, xanthones are found mainly in the fruit's husk, says Ms Gladys Wong, chief dietitian at Alexandra Hospital, but the husk is usually not eaten because of its astringent taste.
So you will probably not reap much of its purported benefits even if you consume a lorry load of the fruit.
Two, while most mangosteen products are extracted from the whole fruit, they are also typically a mix of fruit juices, including aloe vera, apple, strawberry and blueberry, to mask the bitter taste of the husk.
In other words, you are not paying for 100 per cent pure mangosteen juice but a blend of multiple fruit juices, albeit in concentrated form.
Mangosteen drinks are high in antioxidants as claimed by manufacturers since fruit is naturally rich in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, including antioxidants, says Ms Natalie Goh, a dietician with Peaches & Pear Nutrition Consultancy.
However, the health benefits of mangosteen juice have not yet been verified by clinical trials in humans, stresses Ms Jojo Ooi from the department of dietetics and nutrition services at Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
'It remains unknown whether the processed fruit juice retains the potentially beneficial compounds,' she says.
You can still enjoy some of the nutritional benefits of mangosteen - and all other fruit - by simply eating it instead of paying an arm and a leg for the juice.
'In fact, you get more nutrients such as dietary fibre which is often lost if the fruit is processed to form juice,' notes Mrs Magdalin Cheong, chief dietitian at Changi General Hospital.
Going by word of mouth
THE recent craze over mangosteen juice is just one in a long string of 'miracle drink' fads to have hit Singapore.
The list includes - remember them? - noni juice, aloe vera juice and wheatgrass drink.
Pomegranate juice, introduced here about three years ago, also became hugely popular after it was featured in some newspaper and magazine articles last year.
Ms Chen Pennefather, general manager of organic food store Supernature in Orchard Boulevard, says sales of the latter are still going strong and many customers often buy as many as 24 bottles at one go.
The buzz within the industry is that the next 'in' drinks to watch out for are bilberry juice, goji berry juice and sea buckthorn juice.
Demand for health drinks usually gains momentum as health benefits and success stories spread by word of mouth.
You hear of how a four-year-old boy is miraculously cured of leukaemia after drinking a certain juice, and how an immobilised patient is supposedly jumping and running after taking another drink.
For example, housewife Alice Tan, 55, swears by her pomegranate juice as she says it helps to lower her high blood pressure.
'I see it as a health supplement. If drinking the juice helps to improve my health, why not, right?' she says.
But most industry players are keen to downplay the 'miracle' factor of their juices.
Mr Chen Bin, managing director of PomeFresh, says he does not believe in 'miracle drinks' himself. His company imports pure pomegranate juice from Georgia which sells for about $7 a bottle.
'We're not selling you a medicine. If you're ill, see a doctor,' he says.
Meanwhile, XanGo's Mr Tolman describes his product as an 'overall functional beverage which is very powerful' but says in no way is it a 'miracle drink'.
'We prefer to let the juice do the talking,' he adds.
For health juice fans out there, SGH's dietitian Ms Ooi has this reminder: 'No one fruit or vegetable can provide nutritional nirvana. It is the variety that counts.'