The “miracle tree” Moringa and its potential in the tropics
Especially nowadays, a lot of people strive for a nutritionally complete, environment-friendly and ethical way of eating. Concerning the first aspect mentioned, it is not rare that as a conse-quence, especially in western countries, people resort to exotic seeds and powders high in macro- and micronutrients and with numerous supposed health benefits, so called Superfoods. Quinoa, Goji Berries and Chia Seeds are only a few on the manifold spectrum of those plant foods. Superfoods are becoming increasingly popular. The export of Quinoa, for example, from the Andean countries to Europe and North America has seen a strong upswing in the last decade (Furche 2013). Nevertheless, these plants have been grown and used in their places of origin for hundreds of years and often are available in their natural, fresh status. Application possibilities for these plants are diverse and range from their use in medical treatment to their integration as a natural provider of important micronutrients in people’s diets. Moringa oleifera, also referred to as the “miracle tree” (Thurber 2009), is one of those wondrous plants.
Moringa, a small tree that can and is being used in its entirety, persuades with its growth conditions: It is native to South Asia but is being grown all over the tropics, including East Africa. It grows well in sandy, well-drained earth, is resistant to draught and grows fast. An-other astonishing property of this tree is the fact that the pods can be harvested in the dry sea-son, when it’s likely that there is shortage of other vegetables (Hirt 2001). Even though it does not need a lot of water for its own growth, Moringa does have one property that is highly con-nected to H2O: water purification. The seeds of the tree, crushed, powdered and mixed with turbid water, have been used for hundreds of years to react as a natural coagulant. Today it is scientifically proven that this method, inexpensive and low in energy-consumption, is able to bind and sediment between 92% and 99% of the particles in the contaminated water (Anwar 2007). Using one or two seeds per liter of water, in combination with a piece of fabric for rough filtering, is enough to obtain pure water (Foidl).
Despite the acknowledgement of this great property of the Moringa seeds by science, this is not the main reason why this tree is being treated as a Superfood. In fact this term refers to the micronutrient-dense leaves of the tree, which especially have notable potential in regions where white rice and maize with low nutritional value serve as staple foods. The fresh leaves contain all essential amino-acids and are therefore recommended for young children and pregnant and nursing women by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 100 grams of fresh Moringa leaves provide three times as much β-Carotene as the same amount of carrots, seven times as much Vitamin C as oranges and three point six times as much calcium as cow’s milk. Now of course, eating 100g of leaves is a lot compared to munching on a medium-sized carrot in order to meet the daily recommendation for β-carotene intake. Hence Moringa should not be a substitute for other healthy plant foods but rather an addition. However, the advantage of Moringa in tropical countries where it is grown is its capability of resistance, its versatile application and the fact that the Moringa tree and its by-products are handled as the provider of the widest known spectrum of nutrients (Khawaja 2010). For this reason it can guarantee, in the absence of other fruits and vegetables, a mini-mum supply of many vital minerals, vitamins and amino-acids.
In addition to its nutritional value and its use for water purification, Moringa products have been applied in traditional medicine in many cultures around the world for centuries. Current-ly there is increased research conducted in order to review the claim of Moringa products hav-ing antibiotic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects among many others (Razis 2014).
So what is it that makes Moringa that special and is it really a Superfood? Moringa trees in their natural environment – the tropics – are all-rounders: They manage to address several health and environment related issues that pose a challenge in some of the regions where the three is being grown: Malnutrition, lack of drinking water, lack of access to medicine and the absence of rainfall in the dry season which makes it hard to grow horticultural products with its essential nutrients. Especially for small-scale farmers, the plantation of Moringa trees can have a lot of benefits: It can maintain their own nutrition, generate income while saving mon-ey on expensive, imported supplements and at the same time serve as a natural wind break and reduce soil erosion (FAO). To this effect, Moringa trees maybe don’t work wonders, but they can, in fact, be super.
This article is the beginning of a recurring series on nutrition in connection with sustainability and SATs activities, written by Karin Augsburger, a volunteer at SAT. The next article will deal with “Organic Vitamin A”.
Anwar Farooq et al., Moringa oleifera: A Food Plant with Multiple Medicinal Uses, in: Phytotherapy Research, 21 (2007), 17-25.
Foidl N. et al., The potential of Moringa Oleifera for agricultural and industrial uses, in: http://www.forestlandscap.com/moringa-documents/the_potential_of_moringa_oleifera_for_agricultural_and_industrial_uses.pdf, 17.03.2016.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Moringa, in: Traditional Crop of the Month, http://www.fao.org/traditional-crops/moringa/en/, 17.03.2016.
Furche Carlos et al., International Quinoa Trade, in: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Hg.), State of the art report of quinoa around the world in 2013, Santiago de Chile 2013, 316-329.
Hirt Hans Martin and Bindanda M’Pia, Natural Medicine in the Tropics, Winnenden 2001.
Khawaja Tahir Mahmood et al., Moringa oleifera: a natural gift – A review, in: Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, 11² (2010), 775-781.
Razis Ahmad Faizal Abdull et al., Health Benefits of Moringa oleifera, in: Asian Pacific Jour-nal of Cancer Prevention, 15 (2014), 8571-8576.
Thurber Melanie D. and Jed W. Fahey, Adoption of Moringa oleifera to combat under-nutrition viewed through the lens of the “Diffusion of Innovations” theory, in: Ecology of Food Nutrition, 48³ (2009), 212-225.