Moringa: the “miracle tree” is now a trendy new cup

Used for many centuries as a traditional herbal medicine in its origin countries, the moringa tree’s leaves, seeds, roots and flowers all offer highly nutritious components and relief from health disorders.
By Barbara Dufrêne

There are fourteen species belonging to the moringa family (genus), however two amongst them are commercially cultivated and harvested: the Moringa oleifera originating from India and the Moringa stenopetala, or African Moringa, that originates from Ethiopia and Kenya. This multi-purpose and exceptionally nutritious vegetable tree has also been introduced to other countries in Africa, like Rwanda and Burkina Faso, as well as in Haiti, in South America and can even be found in certain subtropical areas in Europe and the United States.

Having been used as traditional herbal medicine for a long list of conditions in Asia and Africa, modern medical research and agri-science has been thoroughly investigating the moringa tree over the past 15 years or so. Studies were conducted to compare the benefits of the two main cultivated varieties. These studies seem to assess that the African Moringa is hardier and more drought resistant and can grow in higher altitudes. Also called the cabbage tree, it is considered an important supplier of fresh vegetables with its lush green leaves that are highly nutritious, and with the fruit that grow as pods.

Furthermore, the African Moringa can grow very tall and is often used as a wind barrier and anti-soil erosion plant. However, it takes longer to germinate and to mature and has a lower leaf yield than Moringa oleifera. The many benefits of planting more trees is promoted by the local governmental agencies, particularly in Ethiopia, first to improve the food supply of populations that live in drought-affected areas, but also with commercial projects for the future.

The main health benefits and the levels of the beneficial ingredients are similar for both main species. Another important property of the moringa tree is its seeds, which can clean turbid water once they are crushed by making the impurities agglomerate. They also have a cleansing and anti-bacterial activity, highly important for preserving drinking water in rural areas of less developed countries.

The roots of the African Moringa can be pickled like horseradish, and the soft bark of the Moringa oleifera can be made into a spicy dish. These trees have beautiful, fragrant flowers that can be brewed into herbal infusions, but usually it is preferable to let the fruit mature. The partially matured pods can be collected and cooked as a vegetable, or once they are fully matured, the seeds can be harvested and eaten as a snack, or collected for oil extraction or used for water cleaning purposes. Moringa leaves are also wholesome cattle feed.

It’s no wonder that locals call the moringa the “miracle tree” for its many, many benefits year-round, providing food for the villagers and their animals, protecting the environment and their well-being. According to studies, it appears that this wealth of benefits has not yet been widely shared and needs more communication in order to make the rural populations fully aware and motivate them to increase the planting, for their own benefit as a first step.

Moringa’s Popularity Rises in the West

Belonging to ancient ayurvedic medicinal traditions in India, the Moringa oleifera, which originates from the lower slopes of the Himalayas, has the reputation as a cure for 300 diseases, and the African Moringa is called the “miracle tree.”

Scientific investigations have confirmed the exceptionally high levels of vitamins, minerals and oligo elements, as well as of polyphenols and amino acids, which are present in the leaf and in other parts of the plant. The oil extracted from the mature seeds can be used for cooking and for cosmetic purpose.

Recent scientific literature outlines the health-benefitting molecules in the leaves, which explains the long list of ailments and conditions the various parts of the tree can improve or cure.

It appears that consuming dried moringa tree leaves, ground into powder, is one of the most convenient ways to benefit from its many balance restoring, metabolism protecting, free radical scavenging and overall healing effects, which are generated by the complex combination of the plant’s substances and their exceptional bio availability. According to science, moringa leaves bring benefits to all generations: rich nutrients for infants and young, increased energy and stamina for adults, protective brain effects for seniors.

In addition to these enhancing benefits of wholesome nutrition, boosted energy, balanced mood and improved stamina, moringa leaves reportedly also have the properties to cure serious health disorders, such as lowering cholesterol and triglycerides, balancing blood sugar levels, and supplying anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory effects. Furthermore, moringa leaves are also believed to help protect the liver and the brain through the high contents of certain vitamins, minerals and oligo elements, the presence of 18 out of the 20 known amino acids, as well as a high level of powerful polyphenols.

Usually these dried leaves are ground into a highly hygroscopic powder, which is popularly reported to contain more vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk and more protein than yogurt, more vitamin C than oranges, more iron than spinach and more potassium than bananas.

The taste is not precisely delicious, close to dried spinach or similar greenery. Also, the grind is extremely dry, which makes some people choke so it is advised to dilute in hot water or in yogurt or mix with fruit as a smoothie. Moringa leaf powder is also marketed in capsules and as ingredient in health beverages. There are no official recommendations, but the suppliers of moringa leaf powder suggest a daily intake of one coffee spoon in order to reap all the benefits.

Production, Trade and Future Outlook

Currently, India is by far the biggest commercial producer of moringa leaf, with a volume estimated at around 46,000 metric tonnes of leaf in 2017, of which 80 percent is exported. Considered primarily as a crop for poverty relief, manageable by smallholder farms, moringa tree cultivation also favours climate mitigation and produces carbon credits, similar to tea and mate.

The growing popularity of moringa in the West is expected to generate increased commercial planting for export revenue. Although agri-science and experimental knowledge seem to assess that the moringa plant is rarely affected by plant pests, hence no major need to use chemicals and phyto-sanitary products, the trends in the Western markets suggest a strong preference for growing these trees within organic agriculture.

“Over the past 15 years, intensive research has been carried out on moringa trees. The new findings have revealed and confirmed that all the various moringa tree materials can make a significant contribution to an improved health status in the Western world and to an improved nutrition status in less developed producing countries” declared professor Klaus Becker, PhD, of the University of Hohenheim in Germany in August 2009.

Ten years later this statement remains fully valid and topical. More and more Western consumers have become aware and convinced by the benefits of moringa products and more moringa growing is being launched every year. Some of the new plantations are designed as development projects for small village communities in Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Haiti, which may attract additional consumer interest and may help to foster more experiments to expand moringa tree growing into new and diverse areas.

Barbara Dufrêne is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle du Thé. She may be reached at: b-dufrêne@orange.fr.

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