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Science Sheds Light on Myths & Mysteries: A Case Study of Edible Bird’s Nest

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Swiftlets of genus Aerodramus fuchiphagus, native to the Indo-Pacific region, build edible bird’s nest (EBN) with a saliva-like secretion which is believed to have exceptional nutritional and medicinal properties. Many myths and mysteries surround EBN and science is shedding light on some of them. On 10 January 2019, Prof Lee Soo Ying from the School of Physical & Mathematical Sciences and the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, NTU, shared his research and findings around EBN.

Prof Lee began by describing how swiftlets typically behave in the wild, and how their nests are formed. He then briefly identified science, myths and mysteries as means to approach the subject of EBN’s nutritional and medicinal value. Through science, Prof Lee listed a few instruments that can be used to study EBN and its components on a molecular level. As myths cannot be tested, science can be used to shed light on the deceived wisdom surrounding EBN. However, there are also mysteries associated with EBN that are more difficult to address as EBN has a complex molecular structure.

Aerodramus fuciphagus and aerodramus maximus are two types of swiftlets that build EBN (white and black nest) and are largely found in Southeast Asia. It is a nutraceutical and functional food desired for its believed aphrodisiac and medicinal qualities. Its perceived nutritional value has been perpetuated by old legends such as the story of Admiral Zheng He and his sailors’ sudden and rapid improvement in health and vitality after harvesting and consuming EBN. Prof Lee addressed other myths such as EBN being made from the swiftlets’ saliva, saying that it is actually built with the swiftlet’s secretion of viscous mucous. As it contains a component of protein similar to eggs, Prof Lee cautioned that EBN may cause allergy, particularly among children.

To address the question of whether EBN is nutritious, Prof Lee shared one of the earliest literatures on the subject written by Dr Wang Chi-Che in 1921. Dr Wang found that the protein in EBN is of inferior quality and is not sufficient as it does not contain Tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in vegetables and meat.

Another popular myth is that red bird’s nest is superior to white bird’s nest. Prof Lee disagreed with this, arguing that white bird’s nest is actually better. This is because a bird’s nest’s redness is the result of the fumigation of the bird’s nest with nitrous acid vapour from the birds’ faeces in birdhouses. However white bird nests also have some nitrite and nitrate acid in them as birdhouses are not completely cleaned out, as this is preferred by the birds.

EBN may still prove to have a beneficial component. Prof Lee highlighted that EBN contains sialic acid which is important for human brain development and cognition. There has been anecdotal evidence of its benefits for expectant mothers and children if they are not allergic to it.

Prof Lee concluded the talk by addressing the audience’s questions, which included the origins of EBN’s perceived nutritional value, what other regions can it be found in and how farmers attract the right specie of swiftlets.

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