First, moringa is a tropical plant and, for reasons I will explore below, it is for tropical people. Everyone has heard of the rainforest, but rainforests make up only a small part of the tropics, a quarter or less. The great bulk of the human population of the tropics does not live in rainforest. Instead, they live in lowland tropical areas with seasonal drought. These are the monsoon areas of most of India, the beautiful savannahs and woodlands of tropical Africa, the famous cerrado, sertão, and caatinga of Brazil, the Gran Chaco of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, and the magnificent Mexican dry tropical forests.
The tropics is also where the bulk of poor humanity lives. The global distribution of poverty, low life expectancy, low caloric intake, low lipid and protein intake, limited access to clean water, and many other indices of unfairness are all concentrated overwhelmingly in the seasonally dry tropics. See, for example, the map below from the World Bank website, to which I have addded horizontal lines representing the Tropics. Practically all of the countries with malnutrition, and all of those with severe malnutrition, are found within the tropics. The darkest colors represent higher percentages of malnutrition, and the darkest countries are found not in rainforest areas but in seasonally dry tropical ones.
In the meantime, everyone needs something to eat. The true value of moringa is not as a fancy fad for rich people. Its true value is that it helps provide a nutritional stopgap to people on the edge of malnutrition or even starvation in the places in the world that are most vulnerable. In the right climate, the plant practically grows itself, requiring almost no maintenance. So, for the overworked villager in a poor dry tropical area, a small grove of moringas very quickly provides a bounty of leaves filled with protein. Forget your silly moringa pills and their empty miracle promises—the true miracle of moringa is that it can help provide protein to growing children. The growth of a human child passes through stage after crucial developmental stage. If vital nutrients are not available, then growth, even of the brain, is stunted. In these cases, moringa, the generous tree that grows itself, can make the difference between retardation and full cognitive function, a gift beyond price. Example after example has shown how mothers who are so malnourished that they cannot produce enough milk to feed their infants have, through consumption of moringa, been able to increase milk production and quality so as to bring their children to weaning at a normal, healthy weight. This is why moringa is the miracle tree, but only in part.
Only in part because, as if having leaves that are comparable in their protein content to soybeans were not enough, moringa also provides a range of other benefits and products that are in short supply in poor dry tropical communities. I will get to the phrase in italics in the next paragraph, but for now want to point out that, hype and bogus advertising aside, moringa really does seem to have a great deal of nutritional value. Its levels of vitamin A are sufficiently high (e.g. Nambiar and Seshadri 2001) as to make it a key tool in Trees for Life’s fight against childhood blindness. Bio-available calcium levels seem high enough that the leaves can be a significant calcium source. As if all this nutrition were not enough, moringa does seem to have mustard oils (glucosinolates) that are very potent cancer-protective agents (Bharali et al. 2003, Fahey et al. 2004, Singh et al. 2009). It seems to help regulate glucose levels in the context of diabetes (in lab animals; Mehta et al. 2003, Ndong et al. 2007), not to mention apparent potent antibiotic activity against the cancer-causing Helicobacter pylori so prevalent in the tropics (Haristoy et al. 2005, Khalifa et al. 2010). Left to grow without pruning, it very quickly produces so many fruits that the branches bend under their weight. The seeds give an excellent edible oil and the leftover presscake contains proteins that can be used to clean muddy river water to help, in combination with a few drops of bleach, clear and drinkable. All of these benefits are often in short supply in poor dry tropical communities. As a result, easy-to-grow moringa really is a miracle.
Given the excitement surrounding it, it is natural that people in the temperate zone and in rich countries should get excited about it. But this would seem mostly to be hype because there are cheaper and more readily available alternatives for people in rich temperate countries. With regard to nutrition, almost no one in rich temperate countries is in desperate need of protein, vitamin A, or calcium. And if you are, there are much cheaper ways of getting these nutrients than shelling out big bucks for some ridiculous moringa pill or drink or other product. Moringa is a tropical plant, so all moringa sold in rich temperate countries is either imported from far away or grown at great expense in a local greenhouse. If you need protein, then beans, eggs, milk, or even meat are cheaper than moringa in temperate countries. It is crazy to pay huge amounts of money for protein that you could just as easily get in a much cheaper form from local products. If you want cancer chemoprotection, then eat broccoli sprouts, which have sulforaphane, the best-characterized plant cancer chemoprotective agent in the world (Fahey and Talalay 1999). Unlike moringa, broccoli sprouts and their chemoprotective compound sulforaphane have been subjected to extensive clinical trials (Kensler et al. 2005). So why, if you can get broccoli sprouts, would you ever prefer moringa? If you need vitamin A, just eat some carrots or cook up some sweet potatoes. If you want to eat a tasty green vegetable, cook yourself up some locally grown spinach or chard or kale or broccoli. The point here is that moringa is the miracle tree not because it offers rich people in temperate countries anything that they don’t already have in abundance. Moringa is the miracle tree because it offers all of these benefits that people in rich countries already have to those that do not.
Excitement about moringa is justified. But this excitement is the emotion that comes from the idea that some injustices can, for today, be avoided: a little boy growing up with stunted mind, a mother losing her infant to starvation. Let’s forget about superfoods and miracle cures, which exist only as marketing gimmicks, and throw all our weight behind real research on the benefits that moringa really offers. Then, let’s get those benefits to the places and people who really need them.
Fahey, J. W., and P. Talalay. 1999. Antioxidant functions of sulforaphane: a potent inducer of Phase II detoxication enzymes. Food and Chemical Toxicology 37: 973-979.
Fahey, J. W., A. T. Dinkova-Kostova y P. Talalay. 2004. The “Prochaska” microtiter plate bioassay for inducers of NQO1. In Methods in Enzymology Vol. 382, Parte B, H. Sies y L. Packer (eds.). Elsevier Science, San Diego, California. p. 243-258.
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Haristoy, X., J. W. Fahey, I. Scholtus y A. Lozniewski. 2005. Evaluation of antimicrobial effect of several isothiocyanates on Helicobacter pylori. Planta Medica 71: 326-330.
Khalifa, M.M, Sharaf, R.R., and R.K. Aziz. 2010. Helicobacter pylori: a poor man's gut pathogen? Gut Pathog. 2 doi:10.1186/1757-4749-2-2.
Mehta, L. K., R. Balaraman, A. H. Amin, P. A. Bafna y O. D. Gulati. 2003. Effects of fruits of Moringa oleifera on the lipid profile of normal and hypercholesterolaemic rabbits. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 86: 191-195.
Nambiar, V. S. y S. Seshadri. 2001. Bioavailability trials of b-carotene from fresh and dehydrated drumstick leaves (Moringa oleifera) in a rat model. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition 56: 83–95.
Ndong, M., M. Uehara, S. Katsumata y K. Suzuki. 2007. Effects of oral administration of Moringa oleifera Lam on glucose tolerance in Goto-Kakizaki and Wistar rats. Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition 40: 229-233.
Singh, B. N., B. R. Singh, R. L. Singh, D. Prakash, R. Dhakarey, G. Upadhyay y H. B. Singh. 2009. Oxidative DNA damage protective activity, antioxidant and anti-quorum sensing potentials of Moringa oleifera. Food and Chemical Toxicology 47: 1109-1116.