An Ode to the Noni, the World’s Most Disgusting Fruit
If you thought durian was the most unappealing fruit, you've clearly never punished yourself with the vomitous little noni. I, unfortunately, have.
Photo via Flickr user Scot Nelson.
I love fruit. You probably love fruit, too. That's because fruit, unlike nearly every other food we eat, wants to be eaten.
Fruiting plants reproduce most prolifically when animals eat their fruits, travel a bit, and then poop out or discard their seeds in a place where they can grow. While meat literally runs away from us as we hunt it, fruits put on makeup and perfume for us. Evolutionarily, it's survival of the most delicious.
So what the hell was the noni's Darwinian game plan when it evolved into the absolute abomination that it is? The noni is, hands down, the world's most disgusting fruit.
Noni ( Morinda citrifolia) grows perennially in most of the tropical world. I wish it didn't. I recently moved from Brooklyn to Costa Rica, a country I first fell in love with while researching bananas. When I arrived at my first rental house and discovered that I had fruit trees from which I could pick and eat, I was elated. But that elation eventually turned to dismay when I discovered, amongst the guava and papaya trees, a leafy specimen from whose branches dangled a number of oblong, pus-white sacs of fruit flesh looking ready to burst like zits. I was the unwitting keeper of a noni tree, and I was morbidly curious.
The noni's appearance alone is enough to warrant physiological and psychological revulsion. It looks like something Dr. Seuss would have dreamed up in some brief foray into the horror genre. Protruding from a noni is a seemingly random outcropping of wart-like growths, rendering each fruit unique, like the world's most hideous snowflakes. Each wart is adorned with a central circular depression, making it look like the fruit has eyes—or anuses, really—all around its flesh. It seems to glisten, as if some oil oozes perpetually from the eye-anuses, coating the exterior with whatever evil is barely contained within. The color changes as the fruit ripens from green to phlegm to the unhealthy white of a cataract.
Yes, it's an appearance only a mother could love, and obviously the mother of every noni is another noni. But I know not to judge a book by its cover. It would be easy to dismiss a kiwi or a Bosc pear by sight alone. In the case of a noni, however, it's not a false facade.
READ MORE: I Finally Lost My Durian Virginity
The first hint that the exterior appearance belies an even more odious interior is the stench. If you ever encounter a noni, I'd recommend keeping about an arm's length between the fruit and your nose. But if you were to take a whiff, you'd first notice the scent of goat cheese left out in the sun. To its discredit, however, the noni presents an odor much more complex than rotting chèvre. There's an overtone of bile-like tartness layered over a surprisingly sweet base note, combining to suggest the vomit of a person who ate too many honey-glazed donuts. A whiff would allow you to understand why some call noni "the cheese fruit," though frankly, that's an insult to cheese. Another moniker, "vomit fruit," is more appropriate, but it may even be an insult to vomit.
The pomologists and travelers among you readers might contend that the infamous durian, known for being banned on Singaporean public transportation due to its smell, is actually the world's smelliest fruit. Trust me, this thing is worse. And if the government of Costa Rica ever sorts out its bureaucratic malaise to the extent of building a public transit system, I assume noni would be prohibited, too.
Until I began working on this article, the olfactory experience was the limit of my engagement with the noni. But for the sake of research, I ate nonis in various stages of ripeness, and even procured and sampled a noni juice from San José's central market. I would not recommend any of these comestibles. The youngest specimen, still green with juvenile innocence, displayed a slight vegetative freshness underneath the noni essence, like a regurgitated cucumber. The ripest noni was mushy and oozy, squirting a preview all over my hands as if to warn me against proceeding. It tasted just like it smelled. I gagged a lot.
The pale brown juice presented a surprising grape-like foundation, perhaps permitted to flourish with the tempering of noni-ness in the juicing process. But although tempered, the soul of the noni cannot be banished. Zero stars. It's official: The noni is the most disgusting fruit in the world.
READ MORE: Why Durian Smells Absolutely Disgusting
Nonis are Mother Earth's pustules, and she should be embarrassed. So why do people plant them, juice them, and willingly put their flesh in their mouths?
Apparently, it's because certain beliefs hold that the noni cures everything. That's right: everything. Traditional medicinal cultures as well as modern alternative medicine advocates have lauded the fruit's alleged ability to treat cancer, heart disease, fatigue, anxiety, menstrual disorders, impotence, you name it. Feed it to your dog, some say, and fleas will leave her alone (the fleas know what's up).
Of course, anything that supposedly cures everything should be immediately suspect. Most things really cure nothing. In fact, in the 13 years since the FDA sent a noni juice company a warning letter for promoting unfounded health claims, various scientific institutions have investigated the fruit's potential health benefits. The conclusion of this research is that, although the bombastic health claims remain largely unsupported by science, noni is generally "safe."
The instinct to assume that something unpleasant must be healthy is exactly what led to centuries of trepanning, a practice by which a proto-doctor would cure a headache by drilling a hole in the patient's head. I wouldn't abide the inhumane taste, texture, and odor of a noni to submit to this fallacy. Frankly, I'd rather be impotent.