There are over 500 species of Aloe, some have the most beautiful swirly growth patterns and shades of green, and most have spiky or serrated edges. They grow abundantly in tropical climates and one, in particular, has been used for centuries as a medicinal plant.
But let’s backtrack a bit. It's very important to choose leaves from the edible variety only, Aloe vera barbadensis miller, and not from other aloe species, as these may be poisonous and therefore not fit for eating. It's generally safe to eat the gel inside the Aloe Vera leaf, as well as the skin.
Aloe Vera juice is a gooey, thick liquid made from the flesh of the plant leaf. It’s commonly used to treat sunburn, but drinking this in juice form apparently provides you with a number of other health benefits - pure, uncoloured, low anthraquinone juice is reputedly good for general rehydration, constipation, liver function, heartburn relief, clear skin and general good health, and helps balance the healthy bacteria in your gut. I wondered what anthraquinone was, and it is apparently used for making some colourants, and derivatives of it have been used for centuries for medical applications, for example, as laxatives, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agents. Current therapeutic indications include constipation, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and cancer, and although anthraquinone is an organic compound naturally found in the leaf of the aloe vera plant, and not considered as toxic, ingestion should perhaps be avoided by some!
Aloe Vera juice commercially produced is made by crushing or grinding the entire leaf of the aloe vera plant, followed by steps to purify and filter the liquid. With a mild flavour, the juice mixes easily into smoothies and shakes.
So, is it safe to make your own? And do you know how to cut a leaf to use yourself? Yes, you can make your own, but you do need to be aware of the side effects – which should be researched thoroughly. Cut a large Aloe Vera leaf in half, and you will see the leaf has three parts – the green outer skin, a yellowy latex layer (this is the dodgy bit), and the gel, which is clear and slippery. To harvest leaves yourself, cut a leaf with a serrated knife from the outside of a healthy plant.
The leaves on the inside are still growing, so you don’t want to kill the poor plant off by removing new growth.
You’ll notice the yellowish sap called aloin (the latex) start to ooze.
Aloin, both pungent and bitter, is potentially toxic with side effects that include diarrhoea and complications in pregnancies. The majority of experts recommend completely removing aloin from the leaves. After cutting, place the harvested aloe leaf on a raised surface and let the aloin drip out onto a plate underneath. Leave for an hour, then wash the leaf under cool, running water. Using a sharp knife, gently remove the skin and any remaining latex, similarly to how you’d remove the skin from a filet of fish.
Once all the yellow stuff is removed, the gel and skin can be safely used as you wish. Rinse the remaining gel thoroughly to remove some of the bitterness, and ensure no tinges of green or yellow are visible.
Blend the gel with water - half a leaf will make approx one quart of liquid, and this can be flavoured with juice, such as pineapple, pomegranate, or even just lemon juice, as it doesn’t have much flavour on its own. The green skin can be eaten, but make sure any yellow latex is removed first, and it can be eaten raw in chunks or cooked using a gentle method such as poaching, blanching or steaming.
And guess what – any leftover aloe gel can be mixed together with honey to make a refreshing inexpensive face mask – one tablespoon of raw honey to two tablespoons of aloe gel blended together is enough for one treatment.