In the tropics of planet Earth grows nature’s answer to the multi-vitamin pill. Moringa oleifera, the tree of life, has earned a growing reputation for its miraculous nutritional and medicinal properties.
The tree has been used in Himalayan medicine for 5,000 years and now is becoming an important dietary supplement all over the globe. It’s known as arzen tiiga, or tree of paradise, in the native language of the Mossi people in Burkina Faso, and Science Daily called it the “world’s most useful tree.”
Moringa is originally from northern India, but, as word spreads of its benefits, cultivation is expanding across Asia, Africa and Latin America. According to Trees for Life, moringa oleifera and its cousins are used in traditional medicines to treat an astounding variety of ailments. Indians use it for treating high blood pressure, while ancient Egyptians applied it topically to prevent infection. In the Caribbean, moringa is used to treat warts in Aruba and eye infections in Puerto Rico. Nicaraguan practitioners use moringa buds to sooth headaches, while doctors in Senegal prescribe it to treat weakness and dizziness.
The tree boasts an almost-unbelievable nutritional profile: A serving of fresh leaves contains 7 times the amount of vitamin C in the equivalent amount of oranges, 4 times the vitamin A of carrots, 4 times the calcium of milk, 3 times the potassium of bananas and twice the protein of yogurt. It also contains measurable amounts of vitamins B1, B2 and B3, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous and zinc. In addition, moringa has all essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for our cells.
Dried leaves pack the vitamins even denser, with 25 times more iron than spinach; 4 times more protein than eggs; 10 times more vitamin A than carrots; 17 times more calcium than milk; and 15 times more potassium than bananas, according to the Imagine Rural Development Initiative.
In a recent study, the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan compared 120 types of food and found that moringa had the highest nutritional content of all. That means that the tree can go a long way toward making up the nutritional deficits present in many developing countries. Families can eat the leaves fresh, or grind them into a powder for storage and later consumption.
And it’s not just the leaves — every part of the tree is useful. The roots act as a stimulant and are used in certain traditional medicines. Seeds are high in oleic acid, can be used to purify water and are a promising source of biodiesel. The bark, pods, gum and flowers all have additional medicinal uses.
Furthermore, moringa trees are able to grow in poor soils and require very little water, meaning they can thrive in arid environments that are unsuitable for other nutritionally-rich foods. It grows quickly, and leaves can be harvested months after planting, and up to seven times per year subsequently. Since the leaves grow year-round, they can provide crucial nutritional relief during dry seasons when other crops are not available.
“I personally think we can wipe out malnutrition in Zambia, in sub-Saharan Africa or anywhere else there is a malnutrition problem,” Steven Putter, executive director of the Imagine Rural Development Initiative, said to the BBC. “I’m not saying moringa is the only plant, but it’s a very good cornerstone to relieve the problems that exist now very quickly.”
The BBC story quotes a Zambian farmer called Lewis Chikoti who says, “I have noticed such a difference in my family’s health; my children are not getting sick and they just seem brighter with more energy.”
The benefits go on and on. Tests have shown that pregnant women who regularly consume moringa recover from anemia faster and have babies with higher birth weights. Children who eat it show increased weight and improved health.
Moringa is also good for livestock, increasing the weight and milk-production of cattle that consume its leaves, according to one study. It can even be used as a spray to enhance the growth of other crops.
The value of the tree stretches beyond the developing world as well. Since so many Western diets are heavy in processed foods and lacking in fresh, vitamin-packed fruits and vegetables, moringa leaves are a great supplement to increase nutrient and antioxidant levels. Moreover, it might have a role to play in the fight against so-called “Western diseases.”
“The glucose-modifying, anti-diabetic effects of moringa may prove of great use amidst a virtual epidemic of Type 2 diabetes and obesity,” writes medicine hunter Chris Kilham. “The liver-protective activities of the leaf and its extracts could make it a staple component of bitters formulas and various cleansing preparations. And ongoing work on the anti-cancer properties of moringa may at some point earn this plant a role in chemotherapy.” Other preliminary research suggests that the leaves can combat Epstein-Barr virus, regulate thyroid activity and work as an anti-viral agent.
Moringa is currently making an influx in the U.S. market in the form of energy bars sold by Kuli Kuli foods, according to a recent VICE story. “In terms of creating a sustainable and ethical brand that makes superfoods popular in the U.S., we want to do what Sambazon did for acai, Ancient Harvest did for quinoa and Guayaki did for yerba mate,” Kuli Kuli founder Lisa Curtis said to VICE.
Bringing nutrients all the way from the tropics to your grocery store — is there anything that Moringa can’t do? As its life-altering benefits gain more prominence, research will continue to unravel the mysteries of the miracle tree.