Chios Mastiha is the name of a resinous sap produced from the mastic tree (Pistacia Lentiscus var. Chia). It is a natural, aromatic resin in teardrop shape, falling on the ground in drops from superficial scratches induced by cultivators on the tree’s trunk and main branches with sharp tools.
As it drips, this sap appears as a sticky and translucent liquid which, 15-20 days later, is solidified into irregular shapes influenced by the area’s weather conditions in summertime, that is intense drought and sunlight.
After being solidified, it has a crystal form, while its rather bitter taste quickly subsides to leave a distinctive aroma that really makes it unique. That solid product is then harvested and washed by mastic growers, giving us finally the natural Chios mastiha.
Its colour is initially ivory-like but as time goes by, that shade is lost and 12 to 18 months later it changes into yellowish due to oxidation. It is made of hundreds of components, among which only 80 are contained in identifiable quantities. Such multitude probably justifies the multiple uses of Chios mastiha, in the fields of food industry, health and cosmetic care, worldwide.
Chios mastiha has been recognized since ancient times both for its distinctive aroma and its healing properties. It has been recorded as the first natural chewing gum in the ancient world. Since 1997, Chios mastiha has been characterized as a Product of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), on the basis of Regulation No. 123/1997 (L0224/24-1-97) of the European Union and it has been registered on the relevant Community List of PDO Products. According to the above regulation, Chios mastiha is protected from the sale of any competitive imitation product whatsoever that would undermine the reputation of the Designation of Origin.
Τhe Mastic Tree
Τhe mastic tree or lentisk – scientific name: Pistacia Lentiscus var. Chia (of the Anacardiaceae family), is an evergreen shrub, 2-3 metres high that develops very slowly and becomes fully grown after 40-50 years, reaching up to the height of 5 metres at its mature age. Its life span is more than 100 years but it cannot produce mastiha earlier than the fifth or sixth year of its life. It reaches its maximum yield after the fifteenth year. After 70 years of age, its yield regresses significantly. Its average annual yield by tree is 150-180 grams of mastiha, while there are certain rare cases of trees yielding up to two kilos and others that only give 10 grams. Male trees are mostly cultivated because they are more productive. Another considerable factor in terms of yield is the distance separating each tree from its neighbour.
The lentisk is a rather resilient plant with minor demands, that is why it grows well on arid, rocky and poor soil. As its roots are spread on the soil’s surface, it can survive in conditions of absolute drought, but can be extremely sensitive to cold and frost. New cultivations are produced from old trees’ branches (grafts) and the old ones are renewed from offshoots or layers.
Lentisks and similar varieties of this tree family are an essential part of maqui-type vegetation found in Mediterranean countries, but only in Chios tree and nature offer those precious mastiha “tears”.
It is well justified then that Chios is actually identified with mastiha. It is also worth noticing that while there are lentisks all over the island, mastiha is only produced in the southern part of Chios, in the so-called Mastihohora or mastiha villages, where the climate is especially warm and dry. This “uniqueness” is probably due, besides a longtime tradition, to certain soil and weather conditions which favour the mastic tree’s cultivation only in Chios and only in this specific part of the isle.
Mastiha production is a family affair and requires work and attention throughout the whole year. In December, growers start to fertilize the lentisks, in order to complement the natural fertilization ensured by the dead leaves of the tree itself. Mid-January and throughout February they prune lower branches to give a specific shape to the tree and to create passages for the circulation of air and light as well as for the drying of resin. Before the tree carving process and mastiha’s gathering, the ground around the trunk needs to be free from other plants. Thus, from mid-June to the beginning of July cleaning and soil leveling take place so that any mastiha drops that may fall on the ground can be easily gathered. The cleaning process is done in a “circular” way around the trunk (creating “tables”); then follow the sweeping of the scraped soil and its leveling, done with well riddled white soil powder, which is spread and firmly pressed on the ground to create a smooth surface. The kentos, as we call the carving of small scars on the lentisk’s bark, is the most crucial stage in mastiha production. It begins in July and goes on throughout August, while sometimes there may be more carvings up until the end of September. With the help of a small sharp iron tool with grooved ends, called kentitiri, they make small cuts on the tree’s trunk and main branches, beginning from the lowest part of the trunk and going up to the branches. The first gathering is done after the 15th of August. Mastiha starts solidifying within 15-20 days from the first carving. We first gather the larger mastiha chunks, the co-called pites. The rest is gathered with the help of “brooms” or by hand. Mastiha is then put into wooden boxes and stored in cool places where it shall be diligently cleaned in order to be finally delivered to the cooperative. Then, Chios Mastiha Growers Association that assembles the total production within a six-month period of time, processes the product, packages it and manages the international trade of different types of mastiha according to its size (pita, large or small chunks), and of mastiha products such as ELMA chewing gum, mastiha oil, mastiha oil water and mastiha powder. It is worth mentioning that mastiha production process has remained practically unchanged by time, something that unbreakably connects it to the historical tradition of Southern Chios.
THE PROPERTIES OF NATURAL CHIOS MASTIHA
Ever since antiquity, Chios mastiha has been well known for its medicinal and pharmaceutical properties.
Nowadays, it has been gradually revealed by the scientific community, through accurate and scientifically acceptable methods based on laboratory research and clinical studies carried out by independent researchers in Greece and abroad, that natural Chios mastiha is gifted with unique beneficial and therapeutic properties, thus confirming what has been historically recorded over the past.
To be more precise, scientific evidence has confirmed Mastiha’s beneficial action against disorders of the peptic system, its contribution to oral hygiene, its significant antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory action, as well as the fact that it constitutes a natural antioxidant agent. In addition to that, Chios mastiha contributes to wound healing and skin regeneration.
Reference is subsequently made to the most important research studies regarding Chios mastiha’s medicinal and pharmaceutical action, the results of which have been already published – as mentioned before – in international scientific journals.
Antimicrobial action of Chios Mastiha essential oil
Significant research activity has been carried out regarding the antimicrobial action of mastiha’s essential oil – mastiha oil. Researchers have studied in particular that when mastiha oil, Chios mastiha essential oil, has been incorporated in the growth medium, it can delay the growth rate but also eliminate microbes, bacteria and pathogenic microorganisms.
The results of such studies confirm the important antimicrobial and antifungal action of mastiha oil, thus encouraging its further usage as a component of pharmaceutical and other protection and care products.
Chios Mastiha as a protective agent against atherosclerosis
Nowadays, there has been an intense scientific interest regarding the use of natural antioxidant agents as protective means against the atherosclerosis disease. Because of their composition, these substances offer protection against the formation of atheromatous plaques, thus preventing the risk of atherosclerosis and heart diseases. The presence of phenolic molecules, triterpenic compounds as well as phytosterols among Chios mastiha’s components is particularly important because of their action against the oxidation of low density lipoprotein (LDL) and that is a significant evidence for its potential antioxidant effect. Research activity in that field is still in an experimental stage. In any case, the results that have been published up to now are particularly encouraging and indicate a strong possibility of using mastiha as a natural antioxidant agent.
Chios Mastiha in relation to oral hygiene and dental research
Scientific studies have proved that chewing Chios mastiha is very helpful for gum exercise, along with all its relevant beneficial effects in dental health. It has been further confirmed that Chios mastiha, unlike ordinary chewing gums, induces greater salivation due to its particular taste and its relative hardness, something that gives a greater feel of mouth freshness and cleanness, while it has been also proved to be relieving for people suffering from dry mouth, a disorder especially common among elderly persons.
In addition, researchers have carried out numerous scientific and clinical studies regarding mastiha’s and Chios mastiha chewing gum’s action in decreasing microbial plaque formation and eliminating bacterial growth inside the oral cavity.
Mastiha’s action in terms of prevention and treatment of peptic system diseases
The results of recent scientific studies related to mastiha’s therapeutic action with regard to disorders of the peptic system are especially worth-mentioning.
Ever since antiquity, it had been known that Chios mastiha had a strong positive effect in stomach comfort, e.g. relieving from gastrointestinal disorders, dyspepsia, gastralgia (stomach ache), peptic ulcers, etc.
In our times, scientific, laboratory but also clinical studies have confirmed the aforementioned significant action of Chios mastiha. The first research efforts were carried out in university foundations and clinics of the Arab world, areas where the use of Chios mastiha was and still is widespread even in practical medicine concoctions.
Use of Mastiha as a component of wound healing bandages and as a skin regeneration agent
Relevant publications have revealed that mastiha presents excellent wound healing and suturing properties, while at the same time it does not bring undesirable side effects to the skin (such as dermatitis, skin decoloration, etc), like other common healing products do.
This unique natural resin is already used very often as a component of bandages, adhesive plasters, compresses and other healing agents applied for the protection and healing of wounds or post-surgical incisions.
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