They’re calling it a miracle tree.Moringa is all the agricultural rage in Rwanda now that the government has funded the planting of 400,000 trees in cooperation with the World Food Programme. The recent joint initiative comes on the heels of several investments in moringa by many of Rwanda’s African neighbours.
The plant is said to be an incredible source of energy, excellent feed for livestock, a powerful antibiotic, and a miracle medical cure. It almost seems too good to be true.
Indeed, there are researchers who have said that some of the incredible claims as to moringa’s health benefits warrant further study.
“There has been a lot of hype on moringa,” says John Kendall, a Canadian researcher studying the plant’s ecological potential.
While there is not sufficient evidence to back up every single claim that’s been made about the plant, many of them are supported by research that points to a science of moringa that’s tried and true.
Juvenal Kanani, deputy dean of agriculture at the National University of Rwanda, says that moringa’s potential as a source of food is largely related to its high concentrations of nitrogen.
“It’s an element that constitutes muscle tissue… and it’s also an element that helps with protein synthesis,” he says, explaining that nitrogen-rich food has an even greater impact on the health of livestock.
“For monogastric animals like humans, nitrogen is very important; but ruminants like cows, sheep, and goats, can use nitrogen even more.” Kanani also points to concentrations of carotene to explain moringa’s reputation for having great nutritional value.
“When you analyse it for vitamins, you can find signs [that it contains much] carotene,” he says. Carotene was proven to ward off cognitive decline in a study at Harvard Medical School last year. Kanani says it also helps the body synthesize vitamin A, which is essential in maintaining ocular health and a strong immune system.
In a recent report from The Philippines’ Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), researchers claim that moringa leaves contain four times the amount of vitamin A found in a carrot.
But the scientific support for moringa’s nutritional benefits doesn’t end there. Kanani says the plant also contains a lot of calcium and phosphorous.
“Calcium is very important because it constitutes what’s in our bones. The more calcium you have, the more you are protecting your bones.” Kanani adds that breastfeeding mothers who ingest moringa have even been found to produce better quality milk as a result of increased calcium in their diet. The BPI report found that moringa leaves contain the calcium equivalent of four glasses of milk.
Phosphorous, meanwhile, helps the body process calcium more efficiently.
“When phosphorous [levels] are not high enough, animals can not [process] calcium very well,” says Kanani.
Moreover, phosphorous deficiencies can be dangerous and are commonly seen in malnourished patients. They can cause muscle-growth problems and low white blood cell counts that leave people physically weak and unable to recover from illnesses.
Not only does moringa help strengthen the immune system, it also can act to prevent illness. A 2004 report from Switzerland’s University of Lausanne found an as-yet undiscovered chain of amino acids in moringa seeds that suggest the plant has antibiotic properties in addition to health benefits. Researchers placed the amino acids in isolation with e. coli bacteria and watched as they killed off bacteria cells.
“Moringa seed kernels, pounded into a powder, can be mixed with even very turbid water and, after stirring it for ten minutes, all the particles in the water will coagulate, binding together, and sink to the bottom,” explains Lowell Fuglie, an American moringa expert working with the Global Initiative for the Advancement of Nutritional Therapy.
“Since the bacteria in the water is attached to the particles, the result is clear water up to 98% free of bacteria.”
Fuglie says there may even be a scientific basis to recent claims that it can help patients living with HIV. Some researchers have written this off as rumour, but Fuglie suggests they may have dismissed the idea too quickly. He says there’s a lot of research yet to be done.
“The high selenium content in moringa leaves is a subject demanding research, as selenium seems to have a very significant impact on reducing the effects,” he says.
“Studies have shown that HIV patients given moringa leaf powder every day did enjoy greater appetites and weight gain.”