Steve Frailey hasn’t caught a cold in over twenty-five years, and he says it’s all because of noni. Noni, the Hawaiian name for the Indian mulberry tree, has been used in herbal medicine for centuries. It was so important to early Polynesians that they brought it aboard their voyaging canoes to plant when they found new islands; they used it to treat sores, infections and indigestion.
Many still believe that noni is a tonic for the immune system. But you would have to really believe that to use it: The taste and odor of ripe noni is often described as a cross between bleu cheese and old gym socks. That didn’t stop Frailey, who not only grew to like the taste but grew a business around it.
Today, after twenty years in business, Hawaiian Organic Noni is the world’s largest certified organic noni farm. “We grow it, handpick it, process it, package it and distribute it,” Frailey tells a group tour-ing the thirty-seven-acre farm in Anahola as they nibble on ripe pieces of noni fruit. He grins while they grimace. “Polynesians ate the fruit raw,” he assures them. “Today many people drink it as a juice, but they’re not getting the maximum nutritional value that way.” The pulp is the most potent part of the fruit, and Frailey says the fermented juice loses much of its medicinal value.
Still, there’s that whole eating part of it to overcome. To make that hurdle a little easier to clear, Frailey and his former business partner pioneered a low-heat drying process to create a noni “fruit leather,” which preserves the potency while losing the funk. Frailey also created a lotion for minor injuries and skin conditions like psoriasis. Does it work? While the FDA hasn’t evaluated noni, and Hawaiian Organic Noni makes no claim of efficacy, some of Frailey’s customers attest to miraculous health benefits, even claiming that eating the leather helped treat their diabetes. Others have said that adding noni to their pets’ diet gives the animals healthier, shinier coats.
Maybe the biggest miracle is that Frailey has managed to build a profitable business around noni. But you won’t hear Frailey claiming the credit for that. “The noni came first,” he says, “and we are merely their caretakers.”
Story by Alyssa S. Navares Myers. Photos by Mallory Roe.