by Jed W. Fahey

This rapidly growing tree (also known as the horseradish tree, drumstick tree, benzolive tree, kelor, marango, mlonge, moonga, mulangay, nébéday, saijhan, sajna, or Ben oil tree) was used by the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. It is now widely cultivated and has become naturalized in many locations in the tropics. It is a perennial softwood tree with timber of low quality, but for centuries has been promoted for food, traditional medicinal, and industrial uses. It is already an important crop in India, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Sudan, and is being grown in West, East, and South Africa, tropical Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Florida, and the Pacific Islands.

“Les feuilles de Moringa aide à prévenir 300 maladies” – vieux proverbe

“Moringa leaves help prevent 300 illnesses.”

Moringa oleifera (moringa) is the most widely cultivated species of a family of plants native to the sub-Himalayan tracts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. All parts of the moringa tree are edible and have long been consumed by humans.

Leaves as food. Moringa is especially promising as a food source in the tropics because 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 dried powder for many months without refrigeration, and reportedly without loss of nutritional value. A large number of reports on the nutritional qualities of moringa now exist in both the scientific and the popular literature. Moringa leaves have been used to combat malnutrition, especially among infants and nursing mothers.

Three non-governmental organizations in particular – Trees for Life (TFL), Church World Service (CWS), and Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) – advocate moringa as “natural nutrition for the tropics.” TFL has claimed that “ounce-for-ounce, moringa leaves contain more vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas,” and that the protein quality of moringa leaves rivals that of milk and eggs.

Oral histories recorded by Lowell Fuglie with CWS in Senegal and throughout West Africa have extensively documented countless instances of lifesaving nutritional rescue that are attributed to moringa. In fact, the nutritional properties of moringa are now so well known that there seems to be little doubt of the substantial health benefit to be realized by consumption of moringa leaves, and dried leaf powder, especially in situations where starvation is imminent.

The use of moringa leaves, seeds, and seed pods as ingredients in foods or food supplements is safe and nutritious. As with any food ingredient you’ve never tried, start with a small amount and increase as you grow accustomed to it.

There are a multitude of recipes for incorporating moringa into meals. Recipes that fit in a variety of food traditions are published and posted in blogs, newsletters, and websites (a sampling of links are at end of this article). Thus, the list includes such things as moringa-sweet potato pie, kale and beet salad, smoothies, pasta, pesto, crackers, pancakes, brownies, oatmeal, broccoli and zucchini soup, teas, etc.

The use of moringa in the tropical countries in which it is grown is as varied as the cuisines of these countries. For example, in a recent survey conducted in rural Mexico (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/fft2.103), household cooks noted:

1.           For the quesadillas I’ll put in cheese and moringa leaflets. And if I make salsa, I’ll use moringa leaflets, some tomatoes, and a little bit of cilantro, and a little bit of onions, and a little bit of garlic, and some salt, and that’s it.

2.          [I’ve used moringa when preparing] meat, quesadillas, in chicken, salsa, and in agua fresca, and only the seeds. Also, [my husband uses the flowers] in tea.

3.           For me, it’s a vegetable that’s normal like cilantro… I want to put [moringa] in because it doesn’t have much flavor.

Seeds. Pressing of the seeds yields 30-40% of the seed weight as a sweet, non-sticking, non-drying oil that resists rancidity. It has been used in salads, for fine machine lubrication, and in the manufacture of perfume and hair care products. In industrialized countries, one of the best known uses for these seeds (powdered) is to flocculate contaminants and purify drinking water, but the seeds and the seed pods in which they are contained are also eaten green, roasted, powdered, and steeped for tea or used in curries.

Disease treatment and prevention. Moringa preparations (e.g. extracts, decoctions, poultices, creams, oils, emollients, salves, powders, porridges) have long been used for the treatment or prevention of disease or infection. An abundance of traditional medicine claims attesting to the curative power of moringa have been subject to much less intense scientific scrutiny than its food uses. However, some of the more well-documented claims that have been cited in the scientific literature for moringa preparations include those for antibiotic, antitrypanosomal, hypotensive, antispasmodic, antiulcer, anti-inflammatory, hypocholesterolemic, and hypoglycemic activities. Perhaps most promising are the claims for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, dental health, lactation (maternal milk production), for which clinical trials have been conducted or are in progress.

Non-food uses.  Among moringa’s many other non-food uses are: biomass production, animal forage, biogas production, blue dye (from the wood), fencing (living trees), fertilizer (seed-cake), foliar nutrient (leaf juice), green manure, gum (from tree trunks), honey- and sugar cane juice-clarifier (powdered seeds), honey (from flowers), medicine (all plant parts), ornamental plantings, biopesticide, pulp-wood, rope (bark), and tannin for tanning hides (bark and gum).

Dr. Jed Fahey is a nutritional biochemist with faculty appointments at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of Maine, Institute of Medicine.