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FEA – Greece – Mysterious Mastiha
Unique Greek sap flowing into global markets
By THEODORA TONGAS
Associated Press Writer
ATHENS, Greece (AP) – It’s not much to look at: globs of tree sap the color of old wax.
But people on the island of Chios gaze at their “crying” mastiha trees and see a golden opportunity for profit.
The sticky secretion – mysteriously found only on certain trees in a few pockets of Chios – has become a success in a world hungry for new products. Mastiha, also known as mastic, was traditionally a natural chewing gum with a woody-resin flavor. Now, it is used in products from food to cosmetics to pharmaceuticals.
Mastiha production rose 25 percent to 130 tons last year. Almost two-thirds of the 3 billion drachma (dlrs 9 million) it brought in was from foreign sales, said Constantine P. Ganiaris, head of the Gum Mastic Growers Association on Chios, a thumb-shaped island in the Aegean Sea off the Turkish coast.
The price of mastiha has remained constant since 1998 at about 17,000 drachmas (dlrs 48) per kilogram, or dlrs 22 a pound. Ganiaris said it was unclear whether the increased demand would push up prices, but he worries a major surge could hurt efforts to expand its niche in world markets.
Driving demand are reports supporting the traditional belief that mastiha can ease digestive ailments such as some ulcers.
“History has asked us to trust mastic; clinical tests prove that we can trust mastic,” said Dr. Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, a researcher at the University Hospital of Nottingham in Britain.
Ala’Aldeen and other British researchers say their studies suggest a daily dose of one gram – about a half teaspoon – for two weeks helps cure ulcers. They add, however, that further study is needed.
Locals on Chios have used mastiha for centuries to treat stomachaches, lower blood pressure, heal wounds and aid digestion.
Some foreign pharmaceutical companies are starting to take an interest, Ganiaris said.
In February, Sansho Pharmaceutical Co. of Japan began offering mastiha-filled gelatin capsules as dietary supplements. Sansho researcher Yoko Yagi said tests are under way to compare mastiha to Japanese green tea as a natural treatment for stomach cancer or gastric ulcers.
Toshihide Yoda, a pharmaceuticals analyst at ING Baring Inc., said mastiha is also being introduced in dentistry. “This hard natural rubber is used as a temporary coating or filling until permanent dental work can be done,” he said.
Residents on Chios claim ancient Greeks chewed mastiha to whiten their teeth and Roman women used toothpicks made from the mastiha tree. A 1985 study by the University of Thessaloniki concluded chewing mastic helps reduce plaque.
Other traditional uses of mastiha include being an additive in artists’ paints and a flavoring in drinks such as ouzo, an aniseed-tasting liquor common in the eastern Mediterranean.
It also has a presence in nearby kitchens. Turks, who use mastiha in desserts and drinks, call it “sakiz,” the Turkish name for Chios. In Egypt, it is used to add flavor to soups.
But mastiha promoters – some using Internet advertising – keep pursuing new horizons.
Last year, Chios native George Sodis began manufacturing a line of skin-treatment products with mastiha oil as its base. He claims the products, which include moisturizers, sunscreen and shampoo, have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties – a traditional belief on Chios, although there are no scientific studies to support it.
A big part of the marketing pitch for mastiha is its uniqueness.
Chios is the only place in the world that produces it. While mastiha trees can grow anywhere, sap production is confined to trees in 21 villages on the southern part of the island. Locals say that if a mastiha-producing tree is replanted in the north, it won’t “cry.”
While no clear scientific explanation exists for why this happens, researchers speculate the microclimate of the “crying” area or nearby underwater volcanic activity could be factors.