Kale, chia seeds, goji berries: “superfoods” are more popular than ever, lining the shelves at grocery stores and the pages of health magazines.
But one of the most powerful superfoods out there might also be one you’ve never heard of. Moringa oleifera, known affectionately as the “miracle plant” or the “tree of life,” is a leafy green that in one serving contains twice the protein of yogurt, three times the potassium of bananas, four times the vitamin A in carrots, and five times the calcium in milk.
Communities in Africa and South Asia have been using moringa for years to promote better health and well-being. But it has yet to seep into the mainstream consciousness.
“There are so many benefits to consuming moringa,” says Corynn Acuff, a Kalu Yala business intern who spent the summer working with the plant. “It’s one of the world’s best-kept secrets.”
Moringa, which can be found mainly in tropical regions and grows naturally all throughout Panama, can be used to treat arthritis, balance the body’s pH balance and treat anxiety. It works as an anti-inflammatory and is great for skin, hair and nails.
“Moringa is very unusual because this single plant contains not only a wide variety of nutrients, but also in very high amounts,” says clinical pharmacologist Monica Marcu in a recent Discovery Channel documentary about moringa. “It is an ideal energy food, or supplement that can help offset the typical unhealthy western diet.’’
The fast-growing plant can be harvested every two weeks, and it doesn’t need healthy soil. Instead, its roots can restore the health of the soil it grows in.
“I’ve been in villages where the only trees that can survive and grow well are moringa oleifera,” Mark Olson, an evolutionary biologist based in Mexico City, says in the same documentary.
Every part of the moringa plant can be used in some way. The roots can be used to alleviate joint pain, the seeds can be crushed up to purify water, the leaves can be eaten or dehydrated and pulverized into a powder, the stems and flowers can be distilled into tinctures. Kalu Yala’s farm-to-table team has used moringa powder in everything from brownies to granola.
“It smells nutty and tastes herby,” Acuff explains. “But it’s better to mix the powder, rather than the tinctures, directly into your food.”
So what’s the catch?
Moringa has even been used as a weapon against world hunger. Lowell Fuglie, the late botanist and missionary known for his work researching moringa, taught aid workers in Senegal how to grow their own moringa plants and crush the leaves into powder. They gave nursing mothers a spoonful of the powder each day to increase their milk production. Moringa has also been used to combat malnutrition and boost the economies in Haiti and Zambia.
Nutritionists caution that consuming moringa in excess can be problematic, especially as part of an already-balanced diet. ‘‘If you already are already intaking a good amount of vitamins and minerals, you most definitely don’t need too much moringa,” says Andrea Hernandez, a nutritionist based in Panama City. “This results in overnutrition, which can lead to obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.’’
Moreover, a small body of unsubstantiated research suggests that moringa can be dangerous for pregnant woman. However, other research shows it might be beneficial. Work with a nutritionist if you’re considering taking moringa while pregnant.
For more on the “miracle tree,” take a look at some popular moringa recipes here.