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Mandarin a day to keep allergies away?

Backers say Placer-grown fruit could boom with scientific stamp of approval
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Mandarins being promoted as a natural allergy fighter? For local agriculture proponents like Auburn’s Joanne Neft, the idea is tangible enough to push for scientific testing that she hopes will show one of the ingredients in the foothills-grown citrus fruit has the power to curb runny noses and ease congestion. Neft, former director of the Placer County agricultural marketing program, cobbled together the $21,000 for an initial chemical analysis with the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Albany that proponents hope will provide more information on how much natural synephrine mandarins contain and how long the substance can last when frozen. Neft said science will find what she and others believe and have seen for themselves. “It’s a decongestant,” Neft said. “Placer County mandarins offer a natural remedy for congestion resulting from allergies or the common cold.” Neft said she initially heard from a mandarin grower that synephrine was a mandarin ingredient, based on what his grandfather had heard from a UC Davis scientist. That was likely derived from a 1965 study that found the Cleopatra mandarin had more of the decongestant synephrine than any other citrus fruit. Two years ago, Neft said her 3-year-old granddaughter was visiting, and like many children in the winter, she had a runny nose. After picking mandarins, the two juiced enough for a drink. “Within 20 minutes, her running nose had vanished,” Neft said. “I keep that picture of my granddaughter in my mind’s eye as we’re moving ahead with this.” Last March, Neft began lobbying her many contacts in the county for a way to bring the benefits of synephrine in mandarins into the mainstream. With no large government grants available for a study, she found support from Placer County, mandarin growers and friends who backed her enthusiastic attempt at playing a strong hunch. With funding in hand, growers provided 60 mandarins a month for tests. Early results indicate a significant amount of synephrine in mandarins, Neft said. The studies also seemed to prove the premise that synephrine levels aren’t reduced by freezing, Neft said. That would allow local growers to provide mandarins for juicing and storing year-round. Results are due to be released this summer. “Two weeks ago, I drank a quart of juice and I can tell you, all my allergy symptoms vanished,” Neft said. Neft, who has a small stand of mandarin trees on her Auburn property, said she has watched over the past 15 years — since the fall Mountain Mandarin Festival originated in Placer County — as the number of orchards grew from six to the point where there are now more than 60. That’s only the beginning, especially if Placer County can tout scientifically proven health benefits for owari Satsuma mandarins, Neft said. A combination of a south-east slope, hot days, cool nights, water, elevation and soil could prove a winning one for agriculture in the county, she said. “My vision is that every southeast-facing slope in Placer County should be planted in mandarin trees,” Neft said. “Placer County has the promise of being for mandarins what Napa County is for wine grapes.” Cindy Fake, farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension, said a scientific stamp of approval on mandarins could potentially prove important to local farming because of the public’s keen interest in health and nutrition. In the herbal nutrition business, news of an allergy-fighting mandarin could be on par with the boost blueberries were given when they became known for their antioxidant qualities, she said. “People would like to find out that something they already love to eat is not only a healthy piece of fruit but has healthy substances that can lessen the impact of colds and allergies,” Fake said. Fake said the goal would be to have the scientific data that will tell people that mandarins are the only cultivated plants with allergy-fighting natural synephrine. “We know it’s got Vitamin C and fiber,” Fake said. “This is something we didn’t know of. We’re talking about a delicious, healthy fruit that could provide other benefits.” For Neft, the goal is raising more funding for tests to see how long synephrine from mandarins stays in the blood stream doing its good work. Armed with enough data, she’s certain mandarin growing will boom. “Instead of growing houses, we’ll be growing mandarin trees,” Neft said. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com, or leave a comment on the story at auburnjournal.com.