What is Tobacco? - From plant to product
We are all very familiar with the various tobacco products displayed behind store counters, or used by friends and family. In fact, when someone says the word ‘tobacco’, a certain product or memory may spring to mind – but you will most likely not ponder its origins, or spout facts concerning its functionality. So then, what is tobacco really? Well, let’s take a look.
What is a tobacco plant?
There are actually more than 70 types of tobacco plants! The main one used for most modern tobacco products is called N. Tabacum – but a more potent strain, N. Rustica, can also be used. Tobacco comes from the nightshade family of plants, meaning it is a cousin of everyday vegetables such as tomatoes, bell peppers and potatoes – but would probably not taste as good in a salad.
In fact, before tobacco can be consumed, its leaves are picked, dried and cured – and are then finally ready to become the products that we know and love. This process is specialised and time consuming, with some leaves taking as long as two months to become properly cured. There are two different curing techniques: air-curing and flue-curing.
Flue-curing means that the leaves are hung up inside curing barns. Heated air is then released in order to dry out the tobacco leaves.
Air-curing takes a slightly different approach, as the tobacco leaves are still hung inside the curing barn, but are exposed to natural air. Without the special heat being generated, the leaves take 4-8 weeks to dry out. Thus, this process takes slightly longer than flue-curing. However, the difference in technique allows air-cured tobacco to be lower in sugar, higher in nicotine, and gives it a lighter and sweeter flavour.
So, the final choice of curing method really becomes a matter of preference in terms of time, chemical content and flavour.
Of course we all know the more mainstream tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars and vapes. But tobacco is actually quite versatile.
If picked fresh, the juice from the tobacco plant’s leaves can be applied to your skin as an insect repellent. Moreover, if you have a vegetable garden and struggle with pests, tobacco is the perfect remedy. A gardening tip from those in know states that, if you soak 1 cup of dry tobacco in a gallon of water for at least 30 min, it will create the perfect pesticide. The longer you allow the tobacco to soak in the water, the more powerful your pesticide will become (do not exceed one full day) – but remember that this more potent pesticide will also eliminate insects other than pests, so always handle it with care.
The tobacco plant is also quite decorative, with white, red or pink flowers. But if you prefer the plant consumed, rather than displayed, then you can rest assured that your options are plentiful. As mentioned above, tobacco is a well known component in cigarettes, cigars and vapes. But it can also be chewed and sucked (chewing tobacco or dip), sniffed into the nostrils (snuff), or placed under the lip for absorption (snus). These non-combustible tobacco options are not always as well known outside of their US and Swedish markets – and are actually banned within the EU.
Now if you want to try a tobacco product that is a little more exotic, look no further than bidis and kreteks. Bidis originate in southeast Asia and India, and are narrow cigarettes that are hand-rolled in a temburni leaf, which can only be found in Asia. The cigarette has strings tied on both ends to keep it closed. Although they are available without flavour, bidis can also be found in a variety of flavours, including mango and chocolate.
Kreteks are also known as clove cigarettes. They come from Indonesia originally, and contain a blend of tobacco and cloves (as well as other additives). Although exotic and exciting, bidis and kreteks are not healthier options than traditional western tobacco products. In fact, they are known to contain higher levels of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide than regular cigarettes.
Tobacco is a far more resourceful and multi-functional product than most of us realise – from pretty house plants, to pesticide, to leaf-rolled bidi. So next time someone mentions the word ‘tobacco’, what will spring to your mind?