Aloe’s history as a folk remedy goes back to ancient Egypt, where it was used for treating wounds, aiding digestion and reducing inflammation. Although that reputation has continued to this day, aloe’s popularity as a food or beverage ingredient never connected to the mainstream. That’s beginning to change.
Originating in Africa, the plant’s ability to adapt to hot climates allows it to be cultivated in many parts of the world. “Most people think of aloe as a cactus,” says Ken Jones, chief science officer of Austin, Texas-based AloeCorp (www.aloecorp.com). “It’s actually a vegetable in the same family as asparagus and onions.”
Aloecorp developed an environmentally friendly, “green” aloe processing technology designed to retain the solubility and stability of the active aloe components without the need for preservatives, refrigeration or freezing. Such technology will no doubt help aloe break out of its image as a topical application and into the greater market diversity of foods and beverages.
Aloe’s topical benefits (i.e., for cuts and burns) are related to its purported benefits as a food and beverage ingredient. The necessity for plants to self-heal due to stresses within the natural environment led to the protective phytochemicals that we derive from plants — the natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents weren’t put there for us. They evolved as part of a complex chemical-defense mechanism that protects plants from an oxygen-rich atmosphere and exposure to ultraviolet light.
What we call aloe vera gel is a clear jelly-like substance obtained from the leaf pulp and contains carbohydrate polymers, such as glucomannans and pectic acid, plus various organic and inorganic compounds. Aloe latex, commonly referred to as “aloe juice,” is a bitter yellow exudate from just beneath the outer skin of the leaves. It’s rich in anthroquinone glycosides and often used as a prescription laxative. The terms “gel” and “juice” are seldom clearly defined so they are often misused.
A November 2005 article in Phytomedicine showed aloe leaf and gel can enhance the absorption of vitamins C and E. This is likely related its ability to slow food passage through the small intestine, consistent with aloe mucilaginous polysaccharides. In the March 2006 issue of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology, researchers reported that extract from the aloe leaf lowers both plasma triglycerides and cholesterol in diabetic rats, while significantly improving plasma insulin.
Other studies indicate aloe might help diabetics, both by lowering blood glucose and by reducing oxidative stress. Reduction of oxidative stress may happen via two mechanisms: first by supplying antioxidants inherent in the aloe itself, and second by stimulating the increase of endogenous antioxidants.
In an earlier (February 2006) article in Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology, a randomized, double-blind, controlled study of aloe vera gel was even more intriguing. Aloe was given for four weeks to patients with moderately active ulcerative colitis. Nearly a third of aloe-treated patients went into remission compared to 7 percent of controls. The Clinical Colitis Activity Index and histological scores decreased significantly during treatment with aloe vera, but not with the placebo.
The future of aloe as a healthful and even therapeutic food and beverage ingredient will depend upon follow-up research to many such interesting findings and anecdotal reports. It’s time for aloe to grow beyond its folksy reputation and demonstrate it deserves a new reputation, that of a helpful and preventative food.