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• Soapberries & Saponin: Here to Stay!

Soapberries – The Future of Natural Organic Soaps and Cleaners.

Finally, I’m becoming comfortable calling “soap nuts” for what they actually are – berries.

It’s been six years since I began writing about soapberries and the potential they offer us as a genuine, viable, sustainable and renewable, safe and environmentally friendly alternative to commercial, chemical-based detergents and cleaners. You may have just recently become aware of them. You may still be wondering if they really work, or if they’re just another gimmick or fad. Believe it – they work. They’re for real.

USDA Organic - Award Winning - soap nuts - soapberries

USDA Organic Sapindus Mukorossi Soap Nuts / Soap Berries: Two-time Green Dot Award winner. The jury proclaimed, "NaturOli green detergents' and cleansers' use of saponin, which is derived naturally from soap nuts, is possibly the most significant green innovation in history for everyday household cleaning needs."

The whole key is that the family of sapindus plants produce fruits containing saponins (natural surfactants / i.e., soap) in high enough concentrations that they are being recognized as a marketable commodity of significant value. Many plants contain saponin (such as agave, yucca, soapwort, etc.), but only soapberries contain enough of the precious saponins to make them a practical, sustainable, and economically viable source of it. It’s actually the combination of the tree’s prolific fruit bearing capacity, and its hardy nature that make annual harvesting possible. Other known saponin producing plants don’t produce enough saponin to make them viable or sustainable as a resource.

As most of my readers probably know, I’m particularly fond of the mukorossi species. That’s a very large tree with a big fruit. It’s like a big, juicy cherry, except golden colored. They’re very fleshy with lots of pulp. Hence, it’s the reigning king species of soap nuts. However, sapindus plants vary greatly. Some grow more like shrubs. I should say “weeds” because wherever they take hold (be it tree or shrub like) they tend to flourish! As you would expect, the fruits vary accordingly. Some are small with thin pulps and skins.

There are species that grow well in almost every climate and elevation, hence various species are found worldwide. Regardless of species, they are all sustainable saponin producers. Research is in progress to isolate all the differences in the saponins. In time, we will know much more. But just like different apples, oranges, corn, etc., the usefulness of each species will be determined. Surely we’ll even have hybrid soapberries someday. It’s inevitable.

Anyway you shake it, soapberries and saponin are here to stay – and the fruits and market will only get better with time, study and experience. I see no risk of over harvesting. Virtually all are growing wild today, and are under-utilized. We’ve barely even begun commercial tree farming. Supply in the wild is bountiful right now! Imagine what can and ultimately will be done…

The future points towards a world with less chemical production of soaps. More green forests and trees. Less chemical processing plants and pollution. More farming and harvesting. Procter & Gamble will fight this transition to be sure. They’ll kick, scream, plot, and execute strategies with every tool and penny in their box. But, they’re a dinosaur – and their end (as they function today) is nearing.

Mother Nature has made it so that the best and strongest will always survive. No amount of money on Earth will change that. Nature’s way and our ultimate destiny won’t be changed by the conglomerates. They will only slow our progress towards a world without them.

Saponin has made this all possible. It has opened this crucial gateway for us. All we need do now is walk through it – and start playing on the other side!

I hope you enjoy your visit with SoapNuts.Pro. Please visit often. We have an in-depth approach to soapberries (soap nuts) with an emphasis on education – almost 40 pages of information and “how to” tips. We explore science, testing, botany, history, and a plethora of uses – plus FAQs that are second to none (over 10,000 words in our FAQ page alone). This is not a store. But you’ll learn the ins and outs, the pro and cons, plus how to use them, buy them, and even sell them. You’ll learn to find good, honest sellers in a marketplace full of rather cagey opportunists – so you’ll never get taken, scammed, or ripped-off. You’ll learn how to get the best product – and great deals! You’ll learn what they will do, and what they won’t do. No sales hype or BS allowed.

Most importantly, you’ll discover the facts about soapberries – the truths.

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• Nut Allergies? No Worries.

Have nut allergies? No worries.

A soap nut is not a nut. It is a fruit – a berry to be precise. Many, particularly those in Eastern countries, more appropriately call it a soap berry. While on the tree the soap nut is similar in physical characteristics and appearance to a cherry. So, if you have nut allergies, do not be concerned.

A soap BERRY is a far more botanically accurate description of it. Throughout this site you will find the use of each of these terms, but do not be confused. I am referring to one thing.

Nobody really knows when or where soap nuts caught on as the most popular term for them. When they are de-seeded, dried and ready for use they have a crinkled nut-like appearance. This is how most consumers first see and experience them. Very few people see the soap nuts while still on the tree. If more people did they would be more commonly referred to as soap berries.

Given that the possibility of an allergy is the gist of this article, remember that virtually everyone can be allergic to something. From experience and hard data from NaturOli, I’ll have to put soap nuts close to olives as far as human sensitivity to them. Out of thousands of known customers and users (as of July, 2009) we have documented only two individuals that experienced an allergic reaction. In both cases they resulted in a mild, itchy rash that lasted a short period (less than 24 hours).

If you knowingly have high sensitivities and many allergies, it is always a good practice to do a small patch test. Take a patch of cloth, get it wet and soapy by rubbing the soap nuts, and then place it on your arm or leg. You don’t need to leave it on for long, but let it dry on your skin. Don’t rinse or wipe it off. Your skin will absorb the saponin. It is the saponin that would be the cause of an allergy. Saponin is the active ingredient in the soap nut.

Allow an hour or two to see if you experience any reaction. If you have an allergy to soap nuts, this test will show you, and do so with minimal discomfort. Most likely the treated area would become red and itchy. Possibly small bumps could emerge. Of course at this point you should wash the affected area. It is only prudent to state that if there is any reaction more serious than described, you should consult your physician.

As we get into much more depth be aware that a soap nut is not just a soap nut. There are many varieties. There are specific articles on this topic. When being referenced in articles and posts the vast majority of the time the soap nut being discussed is the Sapindus Mukorossi variety (the highest quality and most highly valued of the many varieties).

Given that there are numerous species and differing saponins, there is a possibility to be allergic to one particular species and not another. This is very unlikely, but a possibility. Much more study, research and testing of all the varieties of soap nuts is required.

There is a recent 2009 toxicology test that compares ocular irritation from a saponin-based detergent relative to other popular commercial brands. (See Soap Nuts Ocular Toxicity Test) It should be noted that in this independent laboratory test the saponin detergent was the LEAST irritating of all brands tested. Particularly given that this was an eye irritation test (eyes being very sensitive), It is a good indicator of the very benign nature of soap nuts and saponin.

The odds of having an allergy to saponin (soap nuts, soap berries, etc.) are very remote. You should be able to freely partake in ALL the incredible wonders and benefits that soap nuts offer us.

• Variations

All soap nuts are not created equal.

Soap nuts are a fruit that comes from a genus of trees and shrubs known as Sapindus. It is their remarkable ability to produce truly all-natural soap (saponin, the natural active ingredient) that makes them very special and unique. Saponin is the ideal natural, organic detergent and cleanser. (When I state “organic”, I am using the term synonymously with natural – from the earth.) However, all soap nuts are not the same. They vary greatly – and the results you receive from them vary accordingly.

As a consumer, you receive soap nuts as dried fruits with their seeds removed (hopefully since they are sold by weight). If they were not dried they would rot, as would any fruit. Think of soap nuts as you would a bag of dried fruit snacks or big dry raisins. They remind me of cherries. They have a very large seed and relatively thin pulp and skin. While fresh off the tree, a small slit and little squeeze will pop the seed out. The pulp and skin are then left to dry in the sun. When made wet again and agitated the saponin is released creating the suds you will see.

However, as an apple is not just an apple, and a grape is not just a grape, a soap nut is not just a soap nut. Do you think a vineyard cares about the type and quality of the grapes they grow? You bet. If all is not right, an entire harvest could become worthless. A grape is probably the most extreme example I can think of to make my point. Such is the beauty of extremes – they make points easy to understand. It is such fundamentals that we will apply to soap nuts. This article is to provide some basics to assist you in becoming a more informed consumer of soap nuts.

Premature pre-harvest sapindus mukorossi berries developing on the tree.

Premature pre-harvest sapindus mukorossi berries developing on the tree.

As with grapes the varieties run from A to Z. A vineyard is extremely particular regarding the grapes they grow. Different grapes produce different wines. With soap nuts, we don’t need to go to quite that extreme for there are no culinary aspects. The value of a soap nut distills down to one thing – its saponin content (the natural surfactant). A surfactant is what reduces water’s surface tension and allows the water to effectively penetrate fabrics and loosen dirt and grime.

Consider 100% pure saponin as having no variables (other than those caused by the extraction process or method of use). It is what it is, and does what it does. It is the concentration of the saponin contained within the soap nut that we are concerned with. From species to species across the globe, soap nuts vary greatly.

Without going into all the different soap nut species in detail, the Sapindus Mukorossi species are relatively large and contain the most consistently high level of saponin. It is the most prized and highest valued of the many varieties. The Mukorossi soap nut tree grows wild throughout an immense region around the Himalayan Mountains extending from southern China, through Nepal and into northern India. It is called the Chinese soapberry because its true origin is China. It is officially an alien species to the Doon Valley region of the Indian Himalayans where it flourishes today.

Alternately, Sapindus Marginatus as one example (aka the Florida soapberry) is a soap nut, but it does not seem to work as effectively or consistently. The same goes for Sapindus Trifoliatus, a smaller tree from mainly from southern India and Pakistan. They both produce soap nuts, but the quality of the berry is not as consistently high. This appears to be the case for most or possibly all other varieties currently known. There are numerous variables to consider and many data gaps. In this author’s opinion, Mukorossi reigns supreme if you do not want to do a lot of experimentation to get good results.

Fully ripened sapindus mukorossi soap berries still on the tree in India. This is a great depiction of Mother Nature's propensity towards variations. The berries vary greatly in both size and color making thorough sorting vital. The large golden berries will be of highest value. The very dark red berries will be either left on the trees to fall, rot, enrich, and seed the Himalayan soils. If harvested they will be steeply discounted at market for they will become undesirably dark early in the season. Mature trees are very prolific producers, hence allowing harvesters to be highly selective in obtaining the premium quality "yellow/golden" soap berries. It's estimated that only half of the fruits produce actually make it to market (and our homes).

Fully ripened sapindus mukorossi soap berries still on the tree in India. This is a great depiction of Mother Nature's propensity towards variations. The berries vary greatly in both size and color making thorough sorting vital. The large golden berries will be of highest value. The very dark red berries will be either left on the trees to fall, rot, enrich, and seed the Himalayan soils. If harvested they will be steeply discounted at market for they will become undesirably dark early in the season. Mature trees are very prolific producers, hence allowing harvesters to be highly selective in obtaining the premium quality "yellow/golden" soap berries. It's estimated that only half of the fruits produce actually make it to market (and our homes).

Most people have no clue as to what a soap nut looks like. The name implies that it looks like a nut. Even those of us who see and use soap nuts routinely are not always able to immediately determine one species from another. For example, a prematurely harvested Mukorossi soap nut would look similar to a mature Trifoliatus soap nut once dried. And as with all things in nature variations are common. From soapberry tree to soapberry tree even of the same species every soap nut is not identical. Size varies, color varies, saponin content varies, etc. And then there are always those mutant soap nuts. I’ve seen some very unusual looking soap nuts. As a former tree farmer, Mother Nature never ceases to have her inconsistencies. Let’s not rule out evolutionary changes and possible cross-pollination for increasing the variables with soap nuts.

Complicating this further, it is impossible without laboratory analysis to determine the soap nut species once in liquid or powder form. Given the increase in popularity of soap nut liquid and powder, it is only reasonable to assume increased usage of the less expensive varieties to produce these soap nut products.

The color of soap nuts naturally changes as they age causing more confusion. This is normal. Mukorossi soap nuts are initially golden in color and change to reddish and ultimately blackish. Color is mainly a gauge of the age of the soap nut. If properly stored, the color will not alter the soap nuts’ effectiveness. However, if improperly stored (either too dry or too wet) they will prematurely show signs of age and may lose saponin content or worse – become contaminated. Although soap nuts are naturally anti-fungal and antimicrobial, they are not bulletproof, so to speak.

Again, this article is to help consumers understand that a soap nut is NOT just a soap nut. As the market evolves we see more variants in the market. Cheap, slimy black mukorossi berries from China have popped up in the past year. They’re purported to be better because of “rich dark” color meaning that they have high saponin levels. Nothing could be further from the facts. Wise consumers need to have a basic understanding of these things. As illustrated clearly in the pictures above, color has nothing to do with saponin content. Never assume a seller knows exactly what they are selling. Never assume they are being wholly honest about their product either. For novices, these are common mistakes. I have seen it many times. In some cases, what was sold was anything except what it was claimed to be. Do your own homework and ask questions. I try to help you ask the right questions.

Sadly, whenever there are data gaps and uninformed consumers, people will step in and take advantage of the situation for personal gain. I hope that everyone who tries soap nuts gets the experience that high quality berries provide. The biggest crime occurring in the soap nut business today is unknowing consumers having unsatisfactory experiences because an uneducated or unscrupulous seller sold the customer an inferior quality product.

My goal is to minimize such experiences from happening.