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Meet Moringa: What Is This Transformative Superfood Good For?

moringa

I want this article to start a different kind of food revolution. You see, when I write about foods you might want to include in your diet, I generally focus on those that you can easily obtain: fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, legumes, and so on.

Today, I want to convince you to pay attention to one of the most nutritious and eco-friendly plants ever studied, even though the only way you can get it in most parts of the US and Europe is as a powdered supplement. Why? Because not only is the moringa tree an incredible source of nutrition, it also has the potential to reverse global warming, provide food for the starving, create thriving agricultural economies in some of the poorest places on earth, and even remove toxins from drinking water.

So, I hope you’ll indulge me a little until there’s enough of a market to get the attention of entrepreneurs, importers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and environmental and justice-oriented nonprofits to make moringa wide-spread.

What to Expect from this Article

First, I’ll talk about moringa as a health food for you and your loved ones. The good news is, you can find powdered moringa leaf in some health food stores and organic supermarkets, as well as online (loose powder is loaded with nutrients but retails for around $15-20 per pound). And if you live near an Indian or Asian grocery story, or in a tropical climate, you might also be able to get it fresh — or grow it from seed! So even if you can’t yet avail yourself of the full range of the plant’s benefits (which are sourced from fresh leaves, seeds, roots, and even bark), you may still be able to benefit significantly.

Second, I’ll share moringa’s environmental and economic superpowers, both of which may experience enhancement by the creation of a global market for the tree and its products. If I do my job here, the demand that we can collectively drum up can be a catalyst for increased production of moringa — the “miracle tree“.

Ready? Let’s get started.

Introducing the Moringa Tree

Leafy greens like kale and collards are nutrient-dense superstars, providing myriad benefits to your overall health. Best-selling author and Food Revolution Summit speaker, Joel Fuhrman, MD, gives kale and other greens a perfect 1,000 score on his Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) scale. Here’s the thing: that’s a little like the Olympic judges giving perfect 10’s for the first floor exercise routine of the day. It doesn’t leave room for another gymnast doing even better than that. Which brings me to today’s topic: a superfood that’s possibly more nutritious than the leafy greens we all know and love (OK, or tolerate). Introducing, moringa!

According to a Fast Company article, “In a gram-for-gram comparison with kale, moringa has more than twice the protein, six times the iron, and 97 times the vitamin B2.” And it’s been a staple crop across Asia and Africa for centuries. Now, it’s quickly gaining cheerleaders in the rest of the world, too, thanks to evidence that this prodigious plant brings tremendous benefit for our bodies, the global economy, and the planet.

What Is Moringa?

flowers from moringa tree
iStock.com/kobkik

Moringa is a genus of trees and shrubs that belongs to the Brassica family — a relative of collards, kale, and broccoli. So you can think of it as a giant vegetable, the kind that might appear in a fairy tale called Jack and the Broccoli Stem. And while the entire tree is edible (including the bark and roots), the leaves and seeds are the most commonly eaten part of the plant.

Originating in India, the moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) prefers tropical and subtropical climates where it can grow to heights of over 40 feet. Several moringa species are native to South Asia and East Africa, as the trees can also thrive in tropical drylands. Today, it is widely cultivated in other areas around the globe including the Pacific Islands, Latin America, and even California.

Sometimes called the drumstick tree or horseradish tree, moringa is a drought-tolerant plant that produces aromatic, yellowish-white flowers that are also edible and make wonderful herbal tea. You can eat the young seedpods like green beans when tender. And the leaves are edible fresh or used as a powder when dried and ground up. The foliage has a mild, peppery taste similar to that of arugula, while sweeter than kale.

Though it is grown primarily as a food crop, moringa also boasts a tradition of medicinal uses dating as far back as ancient Egyptian times, when the oil derived from its seeds was used in skin ointments. In addition to providing vital food and medicine, moringa seeds can purify water, and the quick-growing wood is a potent source of fuel.

How Nutritious Is Moringa?

moringa powder being stirred into drink
iStock.com/yasuhiroamano

Every part of the moringa tree is a storehouse for important nutrients. In fact, one researcher claimed that moringa is the “most nutritional plant yet discovered.” Others have said that there is likely no plant equal in terms of its combination of nutritive, medicinal, and disease preventative value. Those are big claims — things you’re more likely to hear in a late-night infomercial or from a company about to get sued by the FDA for false advertising. But these moringa promoters are sober, serious scientists. So what are they seeing that have them gushing about moringa in such enthusiastic tones?

Moringa leaves are rich in vitamins, essential minerals, and antioxidative phytocompounds like polyphenols and carotenoids. In fact, when moringa competes with other nutrient gold medalists, it wins just about every time.

What food comes to mind when you think of vitamin C? Oranges, right? Well, moringa is reported to provide seven times the vitamin C for the same weight of oranges. And while bananas are known as the potassium champs, moringa contains 15 times the potassium found in bananas. Then there’s beta-carotene, which comes from carrots (in fact the “car” in “carotene” comes from carrots). Yet moringa gives you 10 times as much beta-carotene. Moringa leaves also contain more than four times as much calcium and 25 times as much iron as spinach — minerals that are essential for growth and development. Plus, the plant is high in fiber, which makes your microbiome happy.

Just 25 grams of dried moringa powder provides a child with all the daily vitamin A and calcium they need, and a decent bit of protein too. And in addition to being protein-rich, moringa leaves also have a favorable balance of amino acids and generous amounts of both omega-3 fatty acids and selenium.

Moringa Leaves Nutritional Profile

Because this impressive nutritional profile grows in arid climates and in poor soil, moringa has been recognized as a vital source of both child and maternal nutrition — especially in poor or rural areas that are nutrient-deficient.

A 100 gram serving of fresh moringa leaves boasts the following nutritional composition:

  • Calories: 92
  • Protein: 6.7 g
  • Fat: 1.7 g
  • Carbohydrate: 13.4 g
  • Vitamin A: 6.8 mg
  • Vitamin C: 220 mg
  • Calcium: 440 mg
  • Potassium: 259 mg
  • Iron: 7 mg

Bear in mind that the seeds, pods, and dried leaf powder of moringa each have distinct nutrient profiles.

7 Moringa Health Benefits

moringa leaves with mortar and pestle
iStock.com/bdspn

For a crop that most Westerners have never heard of, this “miracle tree” may have earned its namesake with a diverse array of nutrients and compounds clinically shown to provide many health benefits.

A word about animal studies: Many of the studies demonstrating moringa’s benefits are done on rodents. Animal studies like these present two sizable problems: Firstly, they are cruel. And secondly, humans aren’t rodents. And sometimes, animal studies lead to misleading human correlations. Sharing the results of these studies is not a statement of condoning them, but is rather based on the hope that they can still provide some valuable insights into moringa’s potential benefits for humans.

1. May reduce chronic inflammation and associated illnesses.

Case-control studies on humans and animals in recent years show that eating moringa leaves may help reduce chronic and acute sources of inflammation. Studies have suggested that phytonutrients found in moringa — namely, the flavanols and phenolic acids — significantly reduce cytokines and other biological markers that cause inflammation.

When examining edema (swelling caused by excess fluid) in the limbs of rats, researchers found that administering moringa seed extract (MSE) reduced inflammation to a degree comparable to the effects of aspirin.

2. May help fight diabetes and regulate blood glucose levels.

Researchers have amassed impressive evidence to suggest that moringa can effectively combat acute hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) — one of the primary effects of diabetes. Furthermore, emerging research suggests that moringa could function as an effective long-term treatment for the disease due to its ability to help regulate metabolic processes.

More than 20 studies conducted on rats and mice show that the administration of various forms of moringa extracts is effective as standard hypoglycemic treatments for diabetic rodents. According to a December 2019 review paper, the jury is still out on whether humans can similarly benefit. The authors conjecture that the presence of terpenoids in the plant is responsible for improving insulin sensitivity and reducing blood glucose to normal levels. Additionally, moringa leaf extract appears to have the potential to reduce the complications associated with diabetes by mitigating renal damage and reducing inflammation caused by the disease.

3. May offer protection from microbial infections.

A diet rich in whole foods and leafy greens, in general, may help protect us against infectious disease. But moringa, in particular, boasts an impressive array of antimicrobial properties in virtually every part.

Extracts from various parts of the plant have displayed the potential to combat isolated strains of bacteria and fungi. A 2018 review of clinical studies reported that juice from moringa stem bark exhibits an antibacterial effect against Staphylococcus aureus (staph or MRSA), an antibiotic-resistant bacterium that can cause sepsis or even death. What’s more, moringa leaf extract demonstrated effective growth inhibition against Streptococcus, the bacterium responsible for strep throat.

In a 2014 study, clinical researchers also examined moringa bark extract as a treatment for urinary tract infections. Of those in the trial group treated with moringa, 66% of patients were completely cured of their symptoms, and only 6% relapsed.

4. May protect against oxidative stress.

Many fruits and vegetables contain beneficial polyphenols and other antioxidants. And the high concentration of polyphenols found in the moringa tree suggests that it is a particularly effective ally in reducing the harmful effects of oxidation in our cellular tissues. In a three-month comparative study, moringa leaf powder was shown to increase blood levels of bioavailable antioxidants by 44% and decrease oxidative stress markers by 16% in postmenopausal women.

And in vivo studies (those done on living creatures, rather than in test tubes) of topical moringa stem extract applications show a significant reduction in oxidative stress caused by UVB radiation — confirming its effectiveness in anti-aging cosmetics.

5. May inhibit or prevent cancerous growth.

Incorporating moringa into your diet may be an effective way to prevent or treat certain types of cancers. A 2015 review reported on several studies that found moringa leaf extract had “remarkable” anticancer effects on lab-cultivated cells including pancreatic cancer cells, liver cancer cells, colon cancer cells, and leukemia cells. 

Another report from 2018 details a study that isothiocyanates found in moringa leaf extract reduced tumor growth in rats by 43%. While we still need to run clinical trials on humans, numerous epidemiological studies show the potential for moringa extracts to serve as effective therapeutic and preventative cancer treatments.

6. May improve memory and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

It’s increasingly well documented that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help to preserve your cognitive function and prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Now we have a growing body of evidence that consuming moringa might be an especially easy and potent way to love your brain.

Neurodegeneration (otherwise known as “brain rust”), refers to the neurological damage caused by oxidative stress in our brains. It can result in diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. And while the effects of oxidation can increase as we age, certain plant compounds like antioxidants are known to be neuroprotective, mitigating the effects of brain rust over time.

Not only is the moringa tree rich in antioxidants that fight oxidative stress in the brain, studies show that moringa leaf extract can stimulate the development of neurons and help regulate signaling pathways in the brain. The combinative effect can help improve spatial memory and reduce the effects of neurodegeneration.

7. May reduce LDL cholesterol levels

High levels of LDL cholesterol are linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. The good news is that a review of clinical studies that examined the therapeutic effects of moringa extract showed that the plant can lower LDL cholesterol in both humans and animals.

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