Growing Plant Aloe Vera

[Gawar Patha (India); Aloe vera syn: Aloe barbadensis]

This large (to 39 inches tall), thick leaved succulent is native to patches of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, apparently in remnants of a vast dry forest that once covered the whole region, mostly desert now. It was taken to China and Europe in the 17th century and is now naturalized in many regions of the world. There are over 500 species of Aloes, mostly in Africa, but only a few have medicinal uses and only Aloe Vera has culinary uses. Not all Aloe Vera varieties are considered edible, the main edible one being var Chinensis.

Studies of Aloe Vera's medicinal, cosmetic and culinary properties are woefully inadequate and often contradictory. What seems fairly certain is that only the gel inside the leaves should be consumed and only after cooking. The latex in the skin layer is a strong laxative and somewhat toxic. The gel is only mildly laxative and mildly toxic, but consumption should be limited.

The gel is used commercially in yogurt, beverages and some desserts, as well in many cosmetic and skin care products. The main regions for culinary use are India, Singapore and Malaysia.   Photo by Pau Pámies Grácia distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

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Aloe Vera gel cubes, rinsed and par boiled, are a little crunchy and have a faintly grassy, slightly bitter and noticeably medicinal taste (so what did you expect from a medicinal plant?). It is not an unpleasant taste, and gel cubes are used in recipes, mainly in India and Southeast Asia. In India the use is often in curries or stir fries, but in Malaysia and Singapore it is most often used in fruit cocktail like desserts.

It is important to note that, though aloe vera grows well in difficult regions, ethnic recipes are all of an "occasional use" nature - only the "health conscious" in North America call for guzzling the stuff. This cautious usage by those with long experience suggests to me that heavy use is not to be recommended - see also Health & Nutrition, below for further evidence.

I have seen recipes that call for using the green part as well as the gel, but others caution against that, it can give you quite a case of the runs.

Preparing an Aloe Vera Leaf

This process should take you about 10 minutes per leaf, including some time for cleaning up the slime.

Leaf, flat side Here is an aloe leaf, 20 inches long, flat side up, weighing 10-3/8 ounces. This leaf was purchased from a large multi-ethnic market in Los Angeles (Altadena, actually) for 2015 US $0.99 each.

Leaf, round side up Here we have our aloe leaf flat side down, with the tip and base cut off, and are starting to peel it. A very sharp peeler is preferred, and make sure you remove all the green from the round side and edges, because it contains a toxic latex.

Leaf, peeled The leaf is now peeled on the round side, and we are cutting the gel into cubes. Just cut down to, but not into the flat side. You may make cuts both ways to make cubes (quick and clean) or just crosswise, and cut the strips into cubes later (better control, not as quick, and a bit messy).

Leaf, sliced Now you slice the gel from the flat side, just the same as skinning a fish fillet. Keep the leaf close to the edge of the cutting board so the knife handle is off the edge of the board and the blade will lie flat against the flat side. You want the blade to slide along the flat side of the leaf, not cutting into it at all, but cutting all the gel free with no significant amount left behind.

Leaf and Gel separated Here the gel is completely free of the flat side of the leaf. Note the few bits of green still adhering to the gel. These should be cut away.

Gel Cubes Now we have our final product, cubes of aloe vera gel. This 10-3/8 ounce leaf yielded 6 ounces of gel, 53%. These cubes must be well rinsed, and some recommend leaving them in a strainer until the liquid gel has dripped out. They must then be cooked before consumption.

Health & Nutrition

Very little reliable research has been done on aloe here in North America, but indications are that caution is advised. The reason there is so little formal research is that most health research here is financed by the pharmacutical industry, though the money may be "laundered" through one or more levels of "nonprofit organizations". This industry is rather uninterested in studying natural products they can't patent and charge a lot of money for.

The safety and effectiveness of aloe vera extracts for both consumption or cosmetic uses is little known, and studies showing positive results are often countered by other studies showing negative results. On the other hand, the "alternative health" industry is perfectly happy to base their claims on inadequate studies, or even on no studies, if there is money to be made.

There is some weight of evidence that aloe gel can help with first and second degree burns, and possibly genital herpes and psoriasis, but other topical uses have no reliable evidence or what evidence is available is negative. It is known that in certain doses aloe vera gel can be at least mildly toxic, the main symptom being serious diarrhea.

Some products formerly used the latex from the green parts of the leaf, particularly in over the counter laxatives. Use of the latex and/or extracts from it is now banned by the FDA for lack of evidence it is safe.

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