We’ve all heard that food is the best medicine, and when it comes to Moringa oleifera, known as “moringa” or the "Miracle Tree,” the adage has never been more accurate. This little-known plant packs a serious nutritional punch. It’s fast-growing, nourishing, and native to parts of the world where malnutrition is a serious threat. Because it’s bursting with protein, potassium, calcium, and vitamins, this powerhouse superfood could help end hunger worldwide. Moringa was used medicinally in ancient India, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and modern studies praise the plant’s ability to fight inflammation, heart disease, insulin resistance, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and many other conditions.
Native to the southern foothills of the Himalayan Mountains as well as parts of Africa, moringa is a deciduous, fast-growing tree that can reach a height of 35 feet and will produce flowers and fruit within its first year. Its narrow branches hold pale-green, feathery leaves, and white or cream-colored flowers bloom in fragrant clusters. While the trees are highly adaptable to inhospitable conditions, they thrive in tropical and sub-tropical climates.
Moringa leaves, which have a biting flavor much like arugula, have the most nutritional benefits and can be consumed fresh, cooked, or dried and then powdered. The young seed pods, flowers, seeds, and roots can also be eaten in moderation. Those familiar with the tree report that the flesh and seeds of the long, tender, drumstick-shaped pods taste like sweet green beans; the flowers taste like mushrooms when fried; and the root has a spicy, horseradish-like flavor.
The beauty of the moringa tree comes not only from its various culinary uses, but also from its versatility outside the kitchen. Moringa leaves can supplement livestock feed. The oil pressed from moringa seeds, called “ben oil” because of its high behenic acid content, can be used in cooking, as a lubricant for machinery, or as a base for beauty products. The branches are a source of firewood, while the fibrous bark can be stripped and turned into ropes and woven mats. Perhaps most amazing, crushed moringa seeds have proven useful as a coagulant that helps purify drinking water. (The Moringa oleifera Cationic Protein, or MOCP, kills some of the harmful organisms in contaminated water and then causes them to clump together and settle at the bottom of a container, rendering the rest of the water safe to drink.)
A Nutritious Superfood
Few foods are as nutritious as moringa. As such, in the fight against malnutrition, it’s exceedingly fortunate that the moringa tree grows naturally in the areas of the world with the most food insecurity. Drought-tolerant, fast-growing, and almost entirely edible, moringa already stands out, but its availability would mean nothing if it didn’t contain a jaw-dropping host of health benefits. Moringa is packed with vitamins A, C, and E, all of which are important to immune responses. Vitamins C and E also help fight free radicals, protecting healthy cells and tissues.
One of the most important health benefits of this potent plant is its amino acid content. The human body needs amino acids to create proteins, break down food, and repair tissue damage, among other things. Usually, amino acids are found only in meat, eggs, certain dairy products, and alternative plant sources, such as soy. However, Moringa oleifera contains 17 of the 20 amino acids. This includes all of those considered “essential” amino acids that can't be manufactured by the body and can only be obtained through food.
That’s not all. Gram for gram, moringa leaves contain two times the protein of yogurt, three times the potassium of bananas, four times the vitamin A of carrots, four times the calcium of milk, and seven times the vitamin C of oranges. Companies, nonprofits, and scientific sources worldwide view this as evidence that moringa will play an important role in alleviating world hunger. According to the Church World Service, a nonprofit focused on hunger, poverty, and displacement around the globe, just 100 grams of cooked moringa leaves (a little more than 1⁄2 cup) could provide a child aged 1 to 3 their recommended daily value of calcium, 75 percent of their recommended daily value of iron, half their recommended daily value of protein, and vital amounts of other vitamins and minerals. This combination of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids works together to create one of the most nourishing sources of food currently available.
Despite its long list of nutritional benefits, however, you need to keep some precautions in mind if taking moringa. The toxic bark of the tree might cause diarrhea, hypotension, and other ill effects, so it should always be removed before you consume the root as a spice. Moringa may have abortive and contraceptive properties; until more research has been completed, avoid moringa during pregnancy. Always consult your medical practitioner before adding a supplement to your health care routine.
A Potent Medicine
Moringa is high in a group of plant nutrients called "polyphenols," which include flavonoids, quercetin, phenolic acids, and chlorogenic acids. These polyphenols give moringa its potent healing powers against a wide range of health issues.
Flavonoids help protect against heart disease and cancer. Quercetin helps regulate high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, and it may also be helpful with diabetes and metabolic syndrome because of its ability to protect the beta cells in the pancreas from damage — these are the cells that manufacture insulin in response to high blood sugars. Researchers further link moringa’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels to the leaves’ natural terpenoid content, which has been shown to restore the health of these beta cells. Moringa’s chlorogenic acid content seems to offer additional blood-sugar-regulating support, and helps reduce high triglyceride levels, which are a type of fat in the blood, making moringa potentially helpful in the prevention or treatment of heart disease.
But perhaps where moringa shines brightest is in the realm of anti-cancer potential. Its phenolic acid content gives the plant some of its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and another class of phytonutrients, known as “saponins,” give moringa added protective power against cancer. In research published in the Asian Journal of Pharmaceutical and Clinical Research, moringa leaves appeared to protect against damage to genetic material, which can be a precursor to cancer. Additional research credited compounds in moringa with halting the growth of numerous types of cancer cells, including leukemia, pancreatic, liver, colon, and breast cancers. However, more research is required before moringa can be considered an alternative cancer treatment.
In animal studies, moringa has demonstrated its ability to protect kidneys from damage, including organ damage linked to pharmaceutical drug use. It has even been shown to protect the liver of animals from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — a condition in which there is an accumulation of abnormal amounts of fat within the liver, which can advance to cirrhosis or liver failure.
If that's not reason enough to love this amazing superfood, research in the medical journal Annals of Neuroscience found that moringa has a protective effect on the brain and may offer defense against Alzheimer’s disease because of its free radical scavenging activities. In a study published in Rejuvenation Research, scientists found that moringa showed significant anti-inflammatory effects in animals, which demonstrates potential for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. While the studies of moringa for the treatment of brain diseases are in the preliminary stages, anything that offers hope for these difficult conditions is welcome.
Moringa’s natural and potent anti-inflammatory effects go beyond the brain. Because inflammation is increasingly being linked to a wide range of diseases, including arthritis, heart disease, and even depression, this plant offers hope in potentially preventing or treating these conditions as well.
No wonder Moringa oleifera is publicized as the next great superfood. This innocent-looking tree holds the key to numerous benefits; it might be a cure to many of the illnesses that plague us, or a source of health and nourishment for those who need it most. Either way, this won’t be the last you hear of moringa.