Excellent Nutrition Can Be Part Of Your Backyard Food Supply.
Moringa (Moringa oleifera) is one of those plants that, at first, seems shrouded in mystery and history. The nutritional and medicinal claims seem to be overblown, and perhaps it doesn’t help that the plant is also sold through multilevel marketing, bringing up past associations with spirulina and other exotic foods.
However, if you take the time to investigate it and evaluate its benefits, moringa can be an ideal addition to your garden, yard or homestead.
First, let’s take a close look at the tree and examine the many ways in which it’s been used historically, as well as currently. Then, we’ll look at the nutritional analysis of the seeds and leaves of this tree.
Moringa is native to parts of Africa and Asia, where it’s long been used for food for both people and animals. The tree is of the genus moringa, of which there are many other species. However, Moringa oleifera is the most commonly cultivated and used species. It’s believed to be native to the foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern India, and it’s most widely cultivated in India.
The word, “moringa,” comes from a Tamil word, “murungai,” which means “drumstick.” In many parts of the tropics where the tree grows, it’s called the “drumstick tree”—a reference to its three-sided, elongated seed pods. But the tree is also known by many other names, such as the “horseradish tree” (because the raw leaves are spicy) and even the “miracle tree” because of its high nutritional value and other uses.
Edible Parts of Moringa Trees
Pods. The immature seed pods, called “drumsticks,” are commonly consumed in South Asia. They are prepared by parboiling and are often cooked in a curry until soft. The seed pods, even when cooked by boiling, remain particularly high in vitamin C. The pods are also a good source of dietary fiber, potassium, magnesium and manganese.
Seeds. The seeds, removed from the mature pods, can be eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. These contain high amounts of vitamin C and moderate amounts of B vitamins and dietary minerals.
Seed oil. Mature seeds yield an edible oil called “ben oil” (from its high content of behenic acid). The refined oil is clear and odorless, and it resists rancidity. The oil is used for hair and skin care and as a cooking oil and food supplement. Once the seeds are pressed, the remaining pulp can be used as a fertilizer or as a flocculant (a flocculant causes suspended particles in the water to clump together, making them easier to remove) to purify water.
Leaves. The leaves are the most nutritious part of the plant, being a significant source of B vitamins, vitamin C, provitamin A as beta-carotene, vitamin K, manganese and protein. When compared with common foods particularly high in certain nutrients per 100 grams of fresh weight, cooked moringa leaves are considerable sources of these same nutrients. The leaves are cooked and used like spinach and are commonly dried and crushed into a powder used in soups and sauces. They’re also used in many different dishes, perhaps most commonly added to soups, such as in the Filipino dishes “tinola” and “utan.” Young moringa leaves, finely chopped, are commonly used as a garnish for vegetable dishes and salads.
For long-term use and storage, moringa leaves are commonly dried and powdered. This preserves the nutrients and allows them to be used later. The leaf powder is then added to soups, sauces and smoothies. Because of the leaf’s high nutritional content, moringa leaf powder is also used as a dietary supplement, as well as to enrich other food products (such as yogurt, cheese, bread and pastry products, pastas and other foods). The leaf powder can also be used as a supplement for pet food.
Part of the appeal of the food from the moringa tree is that it’s fast-growing. It can be grown in marginal or poor soil and is very drought-tolerant. Just as a source of food, alone, that makes this an attractive tree to grow.
Does It Taste Good?
The big questions that will be the decision-makers for many is whether the leaves and pods taste good. I occasionally enjoy fresh moringa leaves, picked from my backyard tree, in my salads. I like the spicy flavor that’s reminiscent of horseradish. My trees aren’t big enough to produce pods, so I haven’t tried those yet, but I know they’re very popular in Asia.
Americans have been hearing about moringa for the last two decades or so, but the acceptance of moringa as a food is lukewarm. Because Americans are so focused on the flavor of a new food—as opposed to its nutritional value—moringa foods haven’t been extremely popular in the United States because of the general opinion that the plant doesn’t have a good flavor.
I would agree that the dried powder is an acquired taste. In fact, the dried powder has a terrible flavor, so you need to know how to properly prepare it. Despite that, I grow moringa (I’ve also found the frozen and fresh leaves in certain Chinese specialty stores), and the flavor of the fresh leaves is very good and appealing. Don’t judge moringa by the dried leaf powder.
So, besides the fact that this tree is quick-growing and drought-tolerant, why would anyone eat it?
It turns out that eating moringa means you’re “eating your medicine.” Eating the moringa in any form is like taking nutritional supplements—but apparently, it’s far better: A given amount of moringa has four times the calcium of milk, four times the vitamin A of carrots, twice the protein of yogurt, three times the potassium of bananas and seven times the vitamin C of oranges! (See the sidebars below.)
Is Moringa Also a Medicine?
The medicinal claims include that eating moringa is good for anemia, arthritis and other joint pain (rheumatism), asthma, cancer, constipation, diabetes, diarrhea, intestinal spasms, headache, heart problems, high blood pressure, kidney stones, seizures, stomach pain, stomach and intestinal ulcers, symptoms of menopause, thyroid and more. That’s an impressively long list of claims! Some of the claims are supported by medical studies; some are largely anecdotal.
Various studies do show that consuming moringa leaves can lower blood sugar levels in diabetes patients and animals, indicating that the plant can be used as a natural way to combat the disease. One study involving 30 women reported that consuming 7 grams of moringa leaf powder every day for three months helped reduce fasting blood sugar levels 13.5 percent (on average).
Similarly, another small study found that using about 50 grams (about 1.8 ounces) of moringa leaves in a meal reduced the rise in blood sugar by some 21 percent. Still, while doctors find these numbers encouraging, they generally suggest even more studies to show the positive relationship between consuming moringa and curing diabetes.
Moringa is often referred to as a “superfood” because of its healing antioxidants and because it improves the circulation. As a result, it’s believed that consuming moringa leaves can improve the sexual functions of both men and women.
A Word of Caution
Where moringa is commonly used, it’s advised that women who are breast-feeding avoid consuming moringa during the breast-feeding period.
Where Is Moringa Grown?
When the trees are grown commercially for the leaves, the leaves can be harvested many times a year, with the plant being cut down to 2 or 3 feet. If it’s being grown for the pods, the first harvest will be about six to eight months after planting.
At commercial farms, the trees grown for the leaves can be planted much closer, because the leaves are harvested regularly. The trees that are grown for the pods are spaced out a bit more. Still, for a small farmer or backyard gardener, the moringa tree can provide nearly a year-round food source.
Moringa probably won’t grow in areas with snow, but it does do quite well in tropical areas and even in semi-desert areas with poor soil. It’s very easy to grow, even in marginal soils.
The largest producer of moringa products in the world is India, which provides 1.2 million tons of the fruit annually. Moringa is grown in home gardens and as living fences in South Asia and Southeast Asia, where it’s commonly sold in local markets. In the Philippines and Indonesia, it’s commonly grown for its leaves, which are used for food.
Moringa grows in the wild (and is cultivated) in Central America and the Caribbean, the northern countries of South America, Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and various countries of Oceania. In the United States, there are only small plantations, mostly in California and Florida.
The trees can be grown from seed or from cuttings. Well-drained soil is best, along with full sun. Moringa trees can be cultivated in marginal land, in alleys and as a natural fence.
Although it’s listed as an invasive species in several countries, Moringa oleifera has “not been observed invading intact habitats or displacing native flora,” and so it “should be regarded at present as a widely cultivated species with low invasive potential.”
Some will categorize moringa as a highly invasive tree like the “tree of heaven.” However, so far, even in places such as Florida, the moringa tree doesn’t yet seem to have the potential of being a seriously invasive tree.
In the parts of the world where the tree grows, Moringa oleifera leaf powder has been used as soap. As long as sufficient water is first added, it works well, because the phytochemicals in the leaves have both antiseptic and detergent properties.
The leftover fiber from pressing the oil from the seeds has also been used in treating wastewater. The fiber is formed into cakes and used as a flocculant; and, when added to polluted water, it can render the water drinkable. This, however, is not a viable water purification method on a small or backyard level.
Moringa leaf extract has also been used as a food preservative, increasing the shelf life of meat and other foods by reducing oxidation.
Here are some of the very simplest recipes I’ve used with moringa leaves. And, yes, with a simple Internet search, you can find many more.
In a salad:
- ½ cup chopped tomatoes
- ½ cup chopped New Zealand spinach (you can substitute lettuce or spinach)
- ¼ cup diced red cabbage
- ¼ cup diced fresh moringa leaves
- 10 olives
- Oil and vinegar dressing to taste
- Toss and serve
- 3 cups miso broth
- ¼ cup diced onion greens
- ¼ cup diced fresh moringa leaves
Simmer for 10 minutes; serve.
- 4 eggs
- ½ cup diced fresh moringa leaves
- ¼ cup diced onion
- ¼ cup diced red or green pepper
- Olive oil
Heat the olive oil in a pan and add the moringa, onion and pepper. Sauté for five minutes. Add the eggs and cook until done. Serves two.
Nutritional Chart for Moringa Leaves
Per 100 grams of raw moringa leaves and based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data:
- Vitamin A, 378 micrograms, 47% DV*
- Thiamine (B1), 0.257 mg., 22% DV
- Riboflavin (B2), 0.66 mg., 55% DV
- Niacin (B3), 2.22 mg., 15% DV
- Pantothenic acid (B5), 0.125 mg, 3% DV
- Vitamin B6, 1.2 mg, 92% DV
- Folate (B9), 40 micrograms, 10% DV
- Vitamin C, 51.7 mg., 62% DV
- Calcium, 185 mg., 19% DV
- Iron, 4 mg., 31% DV
- Magnesium, 147 mg., 41% DV
- Manganese, 0.36 mg., 17% DV
- Phosphorus, 112 mg., 16% DV
- Potassium, 337 mg., 7% DV
- Sodium, 9 mg., 1% DV
- Zinc, 0.6 mg., 6% DV
- 64 calories
- 8.28 grams of carbohydrates
- 2 grams of dietary fiber
- 9.4 grams of protein
*DV = Percent daily value established by the U.S. FDA
Nutritional Chart for Raw Moringa Pods
Per 100 grams of raw moringa pods and based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data:
- Vitamin A, 4 micrograms, 1% DV*
- Thiamine (B1), 0.053 mg., 5% DV
- Riboflavin (B2), 0.074 mg., 6% DV
- Niacin (B3), 0.62 mg., 4% DV
- Pantothenic acid (B5), 0.794 mg, 16% DV
- Vitamin B6, 0.12 mg, 9% DV
- Folate (B9), 44 micrograms, 11% DV
- Vitamin C, 141 mg., 170% DV
- Calcium, 30 mg., 3% DV
- Iron, 0.36 mg., 3% DV
- Magnesium, 45 mg., 13% DV
- Manganese, 0.259 mg., 12% DV
- Phosphorus, 50 mg., 7% DV
- Potassium, 461 mg., 10% DV
- Sodium, 42 mg., 3% DV
- Zinc, 0.45 mg., 5% DV
- 37 calories
- 8.53 grams of carbohydrates
- 3.2 grams of dietary fiber
- 2.1 grams of protein
*DV= Percent daily value established by the USDA.
There’s an overwhelming volume of moringa products available when you search on Amazon—from seeds to the various powders. Most of the products are nutritional supplements based on the leaves, and I’ve tried only a fraction of them. My suggestion is to buy some seeds and see if you can grow some. Then, you can try the fresh leaves for yourself.
Thanks to Amy McKenzie and David Ashley for nutritional data associated with the Moringa oleifera plant as formulated for the Zija brand’s SuperMix dietary supplement. (DA4Health.isagenix.com)
This website is a good source for moringa products and information.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.