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Also known as "Noni juice" or "Tahitian Noni," Noni is extracted from the fruit of the Morinda citrifolia tree, native to French Polynesia, and is currently gaining notice for its supposed curative properties - as well as for the law-enforcement measures under way to quash those very same claims.

The juice's journey to the marketplace began in 1953, when a biochemist named Ralph Heinicke began studies on the healthful benefits of the M. citrifolia fruit. By 1972, the juice's importers claim, Heinicke supposedly isolated the healthful compounds lurking within the fruit. In 1993, two food scientists began further research; by 1996, they had brought their "Tahitian Noni Juice" to market.

Importers Morinda Inc. set about promoting Noni worldwide with a fervor that resembled nothing so much as an Amway cell run amok, complete with questionable product claims, aggressive marketing (Noni sellers were the first to be sued in Washington under that state's anti-spamming law in 1998) and relentless sales recruiting. Also, much like Amway products, Noni tastes like crap.

By 1998, the attorneys general of Arizona, California, New Jersey, and Texas had forced Morinda Inc. to stop making health claims about Noni juice without credible scientific evidence. According to the terms of the settlement, Morinda Inc. could "no longer make drug claims, or claims that the product can cure, treat, or prevent any disease until 'Tahitian Noni' is approved and cleared for those uses by the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration." Morinda also paid a $100,000 fine.

In Europe, meanwhile, Finland became the first of several countries, in 1998, to ban the juice outright, pending tests of its health claims.

Noni-related Web retailers now studiously avoid making anything other than vague claims about the juice's medicinal properties. ("Pure ... simple ... powerful health-supporting properties," goes one typical pitch. Of course, the same could be said for water.)

Perhaps because of the faddish nature of the product - or because it has to be shipped from French Polynesia - Tahitian Noni is quite expensive: More than $US40 for a 33-ounce bottle.

Its makers warn in their marketing materials, however subtly, that the fruit has a "fetid" or "objectionable" aroma; the juice sold in the U.S. is mixed with blueberry and other juices and the finished product still has a gritty, slimy taste that closely resembles prune juice. The "fetid" description is right on the money, seeing as how the juice has a slightly musty barnyard odor. It also seems to act as a mild stimulant, along the lines of caffeine.

tooblasted and four of his co-workers' ill-advised taste tests, after two bottles of the stuff somehow wound up in their newsroom

Also, actress Winona Ryder's nickname. (Thanks to call.)

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