Aloe vera is a type of succulent plant typically found in tropical and sub-tropical arid climates around the world. The long, spiky fronds grow thick with stored moisture, allowing the plant to survive the long periods between rainfall out in desert climates.
Aloe vera is also a plant with a wide variety of possible uses. One of the most common uses, as many of us remember from childhood trips to the beach, is as a sunburn treatment. The gel inside the aloe vera leaf is thick, smooth, and soothing to the skin. It's similar in some ways to menthol; it has a cooling effect beyond what comes from simple evaporation, and as a thick gel, it stays in place on the skin much longer than thinner treatments.
Another of the modern uses for aloe vera is as a health food. Aloe has been used as a natural medication and as a healthy food supplement for years. The fronds are high in various vitamins and minerals, and the flavor has become something of an acquired taste among certain segments of the population.
These days, you can find aloe vera in a bunch of different forms. It is occasionally added to yogurts and desserts. More often, it's found as a beverage, either aloe water or aloe juice. You can also often find whole fronds available for sale, so you can harvest the gel inside for your own uses.
What is Aloe Juice?
Let's start with one such preparation: aloe juice. What is aloe juice, specifically?
Unlike many natural fruit juices, aloe juice is not simply just "the juice of the aloe plant." The reason is because of how thick the gel inside the plant is. You can extract some juice from it, but that's not what you're getting if you buy aloe juice.
The actual aloe juice products you see on store shelves or can order online are generally a combination of aloe pulp and some kind of fruit juice. The most common fruit juices to mix with aloe are white grape and lemon.
White grape juice is used as a base in a wide variety of fruit-based juice beverages, because it's a sweet and relatively neutral flavor that pairs well with just about everything else. It's not nearly as potent as something like a concord grape juice, for example. It makes a good base that isn't quite as neutral and empty as pear juice, but not as potent and flavorful as orange juice. Often, you'll find aloe juice is just aloe pulp, grape juice, and maybe a few added ingredients like citric acid to give it tang or added sweeteners like cane sugar.
Aloe juice with lemon is generally more of a tangy beverage, like a lemonade with an added chill flavor to it. It's a unique experience, and it's worth trying, but many people tend to prefer sweeter versions of aloe juice. It's really up to you which one you prefer.
Lemon and grape are just two of the more common additives to aloe juice. You can also often find some products that are pure aloe pulp and gel, with n o other additives to affect the product at all. These are typically sold as a way to add aloe juice to your own smoothies and other concoctions, but you can drink it straight if you prefer. You can also find aloe with just about any other fruit flavor, and sometimes in vegetable-based beverages as well.
What is Aloe Water?
So what about aloe water? You'll come to find out that there's a lot of crossover between aloe juice and aloe water. Aloe water is more of an "enhanced water" beverage, while aloe juice is typically more of a juice drink.
The most basic definition of aloe water is aloe juice mixed with water. A pure aloe juice mixed with water to dilute it makes it a thinner, more water-like beverage with aloe flavor to it. Aloe waters typically are just that: aloe and water, with no other added ingredients.
The reason aloe water has become more popular over the years is because it's thinner and easier to drink. Aloe is a thick gel, so aloe juice beverages tend to be thicker like smoothies or kefir than your usual fruit juice. Aloe water makes the beverage more pleasant, but it dramatically reduces the concentration of aloe in the drink.
As such, if you're drinking aloe for the health benefits – all the vitamins, minerals, and plant nutrients present in the plant – you're going to want to go for aloe juice, and the thicker the better. Conversely, if you're just looking for the aloe flavor and a small amount of added vitamins and minerals, aloe water is going to be your better choice.
The Problem with Crossover
There's a problem with aloe-based beverages, and that's marketing. There are a lot of aloe juices that are just water-based beverages with aloe in them, the same way an orange juice is typically natural orange juice with water and some other additives added to it.
At the same time, there are a ton of "aloe water" beverages that are basically just aloe juices. Aloe with coconut water, aloe with lemon and watermelon flavoring, aloe with apple and pear juices mixed in, the list goes on.
Essentially, because people are interested in both and there's no actual regulation on what can and can't be called an aloe juice, different companies have used different terms to apply to different beverages. As such, you'll often see a single produced tagged as both aloe juice and aloe water.
Typically, if you want something more like an aloe water, you want to look for something where the aloe concentration is pretty low, like 30% or lower in the main beverage. Even those will tend to be thicker than water to drink, but they won't be nearly as thick as full-on aloe juices, which are closer to 70% aloe or above.
Making Your Own Aloe Beverages
As we mentioned above, you can often find aloe leaves whole for sale at grocery stores and anywhere produce is sold. They are sometimes a seasonal product, though it depends largely on where you live and how hard aloe is to grow in that area. You're a lot more likely to find it freely available in southern California or Arizona than you are up in Maine.
If you're interested in making your own aloe vera beverages, the first thing you need to do is find whole aloe leaves to buy. Be careful when handling these, as they tend to have small spikes or spines along the sides of the leaves, which can be prickly. Handle with the same care you would handle something like a cactus or an artichoke.
Purchase an aloe leaf or two and bring them home. Using a sharp knife, carefully slice them along the edges to cut off the spines, then fillet them like you would remove skin from a fish. This should remove the dark green skin of the leaves and expose the clear, jelly-like interior gel. This is the good stuff.
Using your knife, slice length-wise down the frond, and then across it every inch or two. You should be cutting it into roughly inch-sized cubes. Finally, fillet the bottom skin away from the gel and scoop your gel into a container for storage.
Aloe gel can be kept for a surprisingly long time. As long as you store it in a cool, dry place, it can last for up to two years! That said, it's just as easy to store it in the fridge to ensure it can't mold or dry out.
Mix a cube or two of aloe with your favorite smoothie recipe. Mash up the gel and blend it with some water and fruit juice to make your own homemade aloe juice. Use it as part of a dessert! The sky is the limit in terms of what you can do with aloe at home. Just make sure you aren't blending or eating the green parts of the leaves. Not only is that where the dangerous compounds come from, it's also tough and bitter.
Other Aloe Products
Aloe is present in a lot of other products beyond just beverages. In terms of consumable items, the beverages that aren't juice or water, you can also typically find aloe gel drinks. These tend to be even thicker, and are often found in Asian groceries and other world markets. They're closer to 90% aloe gel. You can drink them as is, though it may be difficult, or you can use them to mix with other beverages you make at home, most typically smoothies.
You can also find aloe in a variety of other kinds of foods, like aloe yogurts and aloe desserts. These aren't super common in a lot of areas, though you'll probably be able to find at least one location willing to sell some.
Aloe is also common in various skin creams and other treatments. Aloe is frequently recommended by naturopaths and other natural healing specialists because of the traditional medicine history, their cooling sensation, and the gel's ability to protect the skin from some forms of damage.
We've also seen aloe used as part of a detox product. As a plant-based ingredient full of nutrients, aloe can be a good base for some kinds of juice-based detox plans. More importantly, aloe is a natural kind of laxative, at least in larger quantities. Some of the ingredients in it – which are usually filtered out of aloe water and aloe juice drinks – have laxative properties, which are a key component to many cleanses.
Potential Considerations with Aloe
Aloe is, unfortunately, not a perfect food plant. In fact, aloe can be somewhat dangerous in some circumstances.
Fresh, raw aloe contains an ingredient called aloin. Aloin is a compound found in the latex of some aloe species. Most modern aloe products now avoid including this ingredient in their formulations, but it's there in the leaves if you buy the leaves whole and want to make your beverages yourself.
Aloin is a toxic compound and a laxative. This compound in small doses is likely just to have laxative effects, but in larger amounts can cause a lot of issues, including abdominal pain and even hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). Higher concentrations can cause heart and kidney disorders as well. It's bad news.
The good news is, you're generally not going to get much (if any) aloin in commercial products. The Food and Drug Administration actually banned aloin back in 2002 because manufacturers never included safety data with their products, and a lot of people poisoned themselves because of it. These days, aloin is rarely found in beverages, but you might still be exposed when you make aloe juice yourself out of the whole plant.
Another aloe-based consideration is that aloe is not a biologically inert plant. It has some other compounds in that interact with medicines. Chemically, it's very similar to grapefruit. If you know about the interactions grapefruit has with medicines, you know how tricky that can be. If you don't, read up on it; it's pretty interesting.
If you're taking any medications, particularly for things like diabetes, blood pressure, and autoimmune diseases, you'll want to consult with your doctor before taking aloe. The last thing you want to do is replace your life-saving medication with a little bit of aloe, right?