Kale and matcha have long since ruled the supergreen kingdom. But recently, a powerful new grassy-hued food has started making waves as an even healthier alternative. Moringa oleifera, also known as horseradish tree thanks to the pungent, bitter flavor of the roots, is a tree native to India, Pakistan, and Nepal. You may have noticed the catchy name, which sounds more like a salsa dance move than a superfood, cropping up as an ingredient in smoothies, juices, and booster shots at health food shops nationwide. With a seemingly endless list of benefits, some have already called Moringa the next big supergreen of 2017. But while it may strike the average green juice–swigging American as new, the nutrient-packed plant has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years.
Moringa trees grow at a rate comparable to weeds, sometimes growing 20 feet in a year and flowering in six months. The fragile leaves are the most popular part of the plant. They can be eaten whole, but are most often dried and ground into a fine, velvety powder. If you are shopping for Moringa in North America, this is how you are likely to find it. The powder smells like a mild, peppery version of green tea and adds a healthful burst of green to everything it touches. It tastes like matcha that has been spiked with notes of spirulina-like blue-green algae. When added to water, the light powder dissolves easily, providing a distinctly “green” flavor that is bitter and slightly sweet. Dried Moringa leaf powder can also be sprinkled into smoothies, yogurts, and juices.
The leaves are chock-full of vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and amino acids. They also pack flavonoids like quercetin, which can stabilize histamine production, and chlorogenic acid, which has been shown to have a balancing effect on blood sugar. A paper published in the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition found Moringa leaves to contain over seven times the vitamin C of oranges, four times the vitamin A of carrots, four times the calcium of cow’s milk, and three times the potassium of bananas. The rich amino acid, vitamin, and mineral profile of Moringa leaves makes them a great natural energy booster, despite the fact that they are caffeine-free.
A study published in the journal Phytochemistry found that the plant also contains substances called isothiocyanates, which have been shown to potentially boost human resistance to cancer while helping regulate blood sugar levels. Stabilized blood sugar can help balance mood swings, control cravings, and reduce inflammation. A paper published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research also found that the isothiocyanates present in Moringa can aid in lowering blood pressure, ultimately reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
That’s a lot of accomplishments for a small and notoriously fragile leaf, but the benefits don’t stop there. Moringa trees have been shown to be exceptionally drought-resistant, making them a critical nutritional resource in drought-prone areas increasingly affected by climate change.
“What makes Moringa leaf such a valuable food is that the plant grows very well in drought-prone parts of the tropics,” says Mark Olson, a professor of evolutionary biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who has studied Moringa for more than 20 years. “Moringa is not only exceptionally drought-resistant, but its leaves have a huge amount of protein, about 30 percent dry weight, similar to powdered milk at a fraction of the cost. With so much of the global population facing protein-energy malnutrition, a protein-rich food that grows well in a drought-prone area of high population density is very important,” says Olson.
Protein-energy malnutrition is a pressing nutritional problem in many countries in Southern Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that it affects more than one out of three children in developing countries, especially where residents face food insecurity.
This is where the benefits of the relatively new-to-us plant begin to outweigh kale and matcha. While we are prone to fetishizing ingredients touted as the next big superfood with miraculous, all-healing properties, the potential of Moringa is far greater than your local cold-pressed juice counter. “What is really exciting about Moringa is that it provides needed nutrition and ‘nutraceutical’ effects for people in places where these things are really needed,” says Olson.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, today many Americans are considered overfed but undernourished, sometimes suffering from micronutrient deficiency as a result. In these reverse situations, Moringa could also be used as a similarly beneficial nutritional supplement in nations where calories are readily available but class too often determines access to nutritious food.
Although the potent green powder may currently be busy climbing the ranks as the next trendy supergreen, a more accurate comparison might be to see Moringa as nature’s Soylent. Just like the drinkable meal replacement, Moringa is a convenient, nutrient-dense food that can be used to supplement diets otherwise lacking proper nutrition. The leaves provide a healthy boost of vitamins and minerals for anyone looking to consume them, but the plant’s true power lies in its potential to redistribute nutrition across a broader global spectrum. Instead of turning Moringa into yet another fleeting diet fad that is here today and gone tomorrow, we might find the most benefits from it if we resolve to view Moringa as a vital resource in feeding the world first, and a trendy supergreen second. In a country already bursting with superfoods, that’s the type of benefit that makes Moringa worthy of real excitement.
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