South Africa is famous for its diversity of aloes and other succulents. Who would have thought that our prolific aloes would yield a wide range of useful products?
Aloe vera, the “true” or “medicinal” aloe, is indigenous to Africa and is abundant in the Western and Eastern Cape. Both the translucent inner pulp and the resinous, yellow aloin sap (obtained by wounding the plant) are used medicinally.
A. vera has been used since the 16th century BCE by ancient cultures to treat burns, sunburn, injuries and stomach ailments, and to protect the skin against the elements.
In South Africa indigenous peoples from the Khoi and San to various Nguni cultures have used the healing and regenerative powers of aloes for centuries. Among the amaXhosa, aloe sap is used to heal wounds and is a known cure for ringworm, tapeworm, boils and ulcers. Aloe sap is also used to treat enteritis in calves and fowls.
The amaZulu use aloe sap to treat roundworm while the amaPondo mix aloe juice and water for a refreshing body wash.
An extract, bitters, is ingested to help with detoxification, as well as the treatment of gout, rheumatism, arthritis and stomach ailments.
In 1967, a surgeon on Professor Christian Barnard’s first heart transplant team noted that the application of A. ferox gel to wounds accelerated the production of cells responsible for the formation of collagen, vital for skin strength and elasticity.
Further research at the University of Cape Town and elsewhere has revealed that aloe sap has proven healing properties, and is very effective for skincare. It is rich in polysaccharides and other plant metabolites, as well as amino acids and minerals, and contributes to the maintenance of hydrated, well-nourished skin.
A. ferox (Cape aloe) has 36 percent more total amino acids in its gel, and 20 times more of the bitter sap containing aloin, than A. vera. Eastern Cape specimens of A. ferox have the highest aloin content in the country – and the world – at up to 28 percent of the bitter sap.
However, aloin does have a downside. Taking A. vera that contains aloin in excess amounts has been associated with various side effects. In 2002 the US Food and Drug Administration banned the use of aloin as a laxative ingredient in over-the-counter drug products. Most aloe juices today do not contain significant amounts of aloin.
The major factory in South Africa that processes the active ingredients of A. ferox is Alcare, established in 1986 near Riversdale in the Eastern Cape. They use three parts of the aloe: the green epidermis (for tea and aloe health fibre), the bitter sap (for its detoxifying and antibiotic properties), and the inner fillet of the leaf, which is not bitter, and is processed into drinks, gels and a white powder used in cosmetics.
Alcare’s extensive range of body care and health products includes gels, sprays, creams, lotions, foams, facial scrubs, skin toners, cellulite reducing gel, heel balm, lipsticks, sunscreen, after-shave lotions, deodorant sticks, toothpaste, soap, hair shampoo, stamina drinks, detoxifying tablets, heat rub and prostrate capsules.
They also produce an aloe rusk mix and aloe tea bags, as well as sprays, powders, shampoos and crystals for use on dogs.
Some of the claims made by the alternative medicine industry for the curative properties of aloes have not yet been corroborated by scientific research. They include the ability of aloe products to treat consumption, heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome. Yet the common and ubiquitous aloe has yielded a stunning range of products derived from the lucrative partnership between indigenous knowledge and modern science.
l Mike Bruton was the founding director of the Cape Town Science Centre, and is director of Imagineering at MTE Studios (www.mtestudios.com). He wrote Great South African Inventions, published by Cambridge University Press. - Cape Argus