“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” - Goethe
“Africa is the only continent where child malnutrition is getting worse rather than better,” according to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He already called for a ‘green revolution’ to take place in Africa during 2004 to reduce hunger. Although hunger is mainly a concern of poverty stricken areas, malnutrition is becoming an epidemic even in affluent societies where processed and refined food has become the staple diet.
The sustainable answer to hunger and malnutrition would be a ‘miracle tree of hope’ grown in local soil! Mother Nature did provide us with all the answers for sustainability, longevity and disease prevention by supplying a rich animal and plant kingdom. Nonetheless, greed, ignorance and arrogance of man favoured convenience, taste and profit above sourcing food for its nutritional content, medicinal value and sustainability. Many plants offer these characteristics, but the Moringa oleifera tree is a particularly extraordinary tree in that all parts of the tree are edible, but the most amazing aspect of the tree is its exceptionally high nutritional value. These qualities make the Moringa oleifera tree a perfect candidate in the fight against malnutrition. The tree is packed with so many medicinal compounds and has such a high nutritional value that it has been rightly dubbed by many as the ‘miracle tree’.
Moringa is a resilient, fast growing tree native to the sub-Himalayan areas of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The plant family Moringaceae contains 14 species of Moringa trees. Moringa Oleifera, a drought tolerant tree, is the best-known member of this plant family. Known as the horseradish tree, this pan-tropical species is grown in semiarid, tropical and subtropical areas. Moringa Oleifera is also known by regional names such as drumstick tree, cabbage tree, benzolive, kelor, marango, mlonge, moonga, mulangay, marum, nébéday (means ‘Never Die’), yoruba, saijhan, sajna or Ben oil tree and was used by the ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians.
Today, it is already an important crop in India (largest producer), Ethiopia, the Philippines and the Sudan, and is being grown in West, East and Southern Africa, tropical Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Florida and the Pacific Islands. The whole edible tree, thus the leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, seed and root is used to make medicine and alleviate malnutrition, among many other practical uses. Its multi-purpose nature has earned Moringa Oleifera the name ‘miracle tree of hope’.
- Human Health
All parts of the tree are used in traditional medicine in several countries. Many maladies have been treated, from blood pressure, diabetes, anaemia, arthritis and other joint pain, asthma, digestive disorders and ulcers, epilepsy, headache, heart problems, kidney stones, low sex drive, blindness, fluid retention, thyroid disorders and cancer; to bacterial, fungal, viral and parasitic infections. The powdered leaves are used as a nutritional supplement or tonic. Moringa is sometimes applied directly to the skin as a germ-killer or astringent (drying agent). It is also used topically for treating abscesses, athlete’s foot, dandruff, gum disease, snakebites, warts and wound healing.
Moringa leaves are given to nursing mothers to increase lactation and it is a popular weaning food for infants to combat malnutrition. The tree is therefore known as ‘Mother’s best friend’ in many parts of the world.
- Livestock fodder
The leaves, stems and treated seed-cake are used as animal forage. In cattle, daily weight gain has increased up to 32% and milk production 43 to 65% when Moringa was included in their diet.
- Plant growth enhancer
An effective plant growth hormone can be extracted from fresh leaves and has been found to increase crop yields by up to 25 to 30%. The leaves can also be used as a green manure to enrich farmlands and the seed-cake as fertiliser. By incorporating the leaves into the soil, it has application as bio-pesticide by preventing fungal attack of young seedlings (damping off). Juice expressed from the leaves is used as foliar nutrient and Moringa has application in alley cropping (biomass production).
Biogas produced from the leaves; and the seed oil has potential for biofuel.
- Water purification
The powder from ground Moringa seeds and the press-cake left over from oil extraction are used to purify water and remove salt from seawater. It acts as a coagulant which attaches to particulate matter and bacteria in the water and falls to the bottom of the container. The purified water is then poured out and boiled. This method has been used for centuries domestically and has recently been tried commercially and was found to be equally efficient as, if not surpassing, alum which is usually used and at a fraction of the cost.
Oil extracted from the seeds, known as Ben oil, is used in food, perfume, hair care products and as a machine lubricant. It is a popular cosmetic oil, since it contains anti-aging properties. It’s a sweet, non-sticking, non-drying oil that resists rancidity. The crushed leaves have application as domestic cleaning agent, while the living plants are used for fencing and ornamental plantings. The bark of the tree can be used to make mats or rope and in tanning hides. The gum from the cut tree trunks is used in calico printing. The wood can be used as firewood, pulp for paper and to make a blue dye. The powdered seeds are used to clarify honey and sugarcane juice and the year-round flowers provide nectar for honey production.
Considering the potential of Moringa, it is no surprise that it is also known as the ‘Divine tree’ and ‘Wonder tree’. In Southern-Ethiopia, Moringa has social value. When a boy proposes marriage, the girl’s family enquire whether or not the would-be groom has Moringa trees on his farm.
In some regions, the young seed pods are most commonly eaten, while in others, the leaves are the most commonly used part of the plant. The leaves are cooked and used like spinach or cabbage and they are also dried and powdered for use as a condiment in soups and sauces, steeped as tea or as a nutritional supplement. The tender leaves are used chopped in curries, soups, omelettes and stir-fries or as garnish for vegetable dishes and salads. It is also used instead of or along with coriander. The leaves can also be processed with olive oil and salt for a pesto-like pasta sauce. In Southern Ethiopia, its common name ‘Cabbage tree’ has been derived from the dietary role its leaves play. Apart from being consumed as a vegetable, it is also marketed as a source of income.
Drumsticks or pods
The immature seed pods, called ‘drumsticks’, are prepared by parboiling and cooked in a curry until soft or they are prepared similarly to green beans. The fruit meat of the pods, including the seeds, is used in soups.
The seeds are removed from more mature pods and eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. They are also powdered and steeped for tea or used in curries. The mature seeds yield 38 to 40% edible oil, which is odourless and resists rancidity once refined.
The edible flowers are used in omelettes and various dishes and taste similar to mushrooms.
The roots are shredded and used as a condiment in the same way as horseradish, therefore the common name ‘Horseradish tree’.
The fresh raw leaves of the Moringa tree are the most nutritious part, being an excellent source of provitamin A as beta-carotene – four times the amount found in carrots. They are rich in vitamin C – seven times the amount in oranges and they are a good source of vitamin B, especially B6, and other minerals, such as iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, copper, selenium and manganese. Iron needs vitamin C for proper absorption, Moringa is therefore an excellent source of absorbable iron. The leaves are an outstanding source of calcium – four times the amount in milk. Their protein quality equals that of milk and eggs, and the protein content is twice the amount found in milk. The Moringa leaves are about 40% protein, with all of the 9 essential amino acids present in various amounts, making it a complete protein source. Moringa is considered to have the highest protein ratio of all the plants studied on earth so far. They contain the important amino acids methionine and cystine, as well as arginine and histidine, which are especially important for infants. Since dried powdered leaves are concentrated, they contain even higher amounts of many of these nutrients, except for vitamin C. Carbohydrates, fats and phosphorous content are low, making this one of the finest plant foods to be found.
Moringa is a rich source of antioxidants and unique phytochemicals (plant chemicals) that have hypotensive, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, hypo-cholesterolemic, hypoglycaemic and antibacterial activity. The seed oil consists of 13% saturated fats and 82% unsaturated fatty acids, and contains essential fatty acids.
Moringa has been used for many centuries as a panacea for health. Today, scientific research is confirming potential properties of its nutrients and phytochemicals through in-vitro (cultured cells) and in-vivo (animal) trials. Antibiosis (anti-microbial activity) and cancer prevention are two areas where classical scientific evidence appears to be particularly strong. However, modern science aspires justifying the anecdotal benefits of the plant with double-blind placebo controlled, randomized clinical trials. Since crude extracts and isolated bioactive compounds are used by researchers in-vitro and in-vivo, the proof that modern medicine requires has not yet been satisfactorily demonstrated in human subjects. Why not? The answer lies in the whole. Isolating active ingredients is non-sensible, because all the nutrients and phytochemicals work together in a delicate balance to achieve a synergistic effect.
The laboratory reports done on Moringa’s toxicity and nutritional composition are sound: they do not find evidence of any inherent toxins. We can trust that Mother Nature has safely packaged a medicinal and nutritional powerhouse into one tree.
Moringa trees have been successfully used worldwide to combat undernourishment and malnutrition, especially in infants and pregnant and nursing mothers, because of its unique nutritional properties. It takes around ten days to see an improvement in malnourished infants when Moringa leaves are used, whereas recovery with conventional methods takes months. Moringa is especially promising as a food source in the tropics, since the tree is in full leaf at the end of the dry season when other foods are typically scarce. Leaves can be eaten fresh, cooked or stored as a dried powder for many months without refrigeration, and reportedly with no loss of nutritional value during storage.
Moringa leaves can be produced intensively in a family-size small garden. The seeds can be spaced as closely as ten centimetres apart. When the plants reach a height of a meter, they can be cut down to a height of 30 centimetres. The leaves can be stripped from the stems and used, while the stems can be fed to livestock. The stumps survive the harvest and will re-sprout, allowing another harvest in as little as fifty days. Using this technique, a Moringa garden can continually produce green matter for several years with very little labour required. While it grows best in dry, sandy soil, it tolerates poor soil, including coastal areas. Moringa is a sun- and heat-loving plant, it does not tolerate freeze and frost. It is particularly suitable for dry regions, as it can be grown using rainwater without expensive irrigation techniques. In South Africa, Moringa cultivation will be best suited to Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.
Mother Nature neatly packaged everything we need for our nutritional well-being right in front of our eyes... But we are blinded by our taste for convenience, greed and what we perceive as ‘pleasurable’! Our natural instinct should crave a green Moringa smoothie instead of bubble gum milkshake or cream soda floats…
Instead of supplying fortified food, synthetic supplements and importing expensive superfoods from around the globe, we should rather invest in our native plants to address malnutrition in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.
Fahey, J.W. Moringa oleifera: a Review of the Medical Evidence for its Nutritional, Therapeutic, and Prophylactic Properties - Part 1. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Trees for Life Journal 2005, 1:5 (http://www.tfljournal.org/article.php/20051201124931586)
Fuglie, L.J. The Moringa Tree – A local solution to malnutrition? Training Manual. Church World Service, Dakar, Senegal, 2005.
A revised version of this article appeared in The South African Journal of Natural Medicine, August 2013, Issue 98: 48 -51.