If plants could be superheroes, the Moringa (Moringa oleifera) tree would be one of them. A native to the foothills of the Himalayas in India, moringa is drought tolerant, grows rapidly, has leaves that can be used as a biofertiliser, and has seeds that can help purify water.
Even more interesting about this tree, is that it’s a food, a vegetable, and a medicine. Every part of the tree can be consumed; leaves and young fruits (pods) as food; and the seeds, bark, flowers, and roots as medicine.
The leaves are highly nutritious. Once harvested and dried, they contain 30% protein, all essential amino acids, and have abundant levels of vitamins and minerals.
The trees have a natural defence mechanism against environmental stress and pests. These are unique chemical compounds, known as phytochemicals, which include antioxidants and defence compounds. When consumed these compounds they also protect people against various conditions and diseases.
As a postdoctoral research at Rutgers University working with botanicals to treat obesity and diabetes, we demonstrated a simple way to harness the potent anti-inflammatory compounds in moringa leaves.
Moringa‘s safety and efficacy have been reviewed, and have shown promise for the management of diabetes and risk of cardiovascular diseases.
How it works
Many phytochemicals, especially plant defence compounds used to ward off insects, are stored as inactive compounds. When the leaves are crushed, or chewed by an insect, an enzymatic reaction occurs, releasing the activated compound. While these can act as a deterrent to bug, tasting bitter or spicy, these compounds act as a potent anti-inflammatory agents in our body.
The way it works is that when we’re sick, or have an underlying health condition like cancer, diabetes, or obesity, our bodies overreact and cause chronic inflammation. This constant inflammation throws the body off balance as it’s always in fight mode. While acute inflammation can help the body heal, like when you cut your finger, chronic inflammation can be detrimental to health because the immune system is over working. Inflammation can also cause improper processing of sugars and toxins that we are exposed to. The phytochemicals from moringa can help reduce this inflammation.
The bioactive compounds in moringa are called isothiocyanates (ITCs) and are similar to ones found in broccoli, cabbage and rocket – giving them a little peppery taste.
We showed their ability to reduce chronic inflammation, blood sugar levels, cholesterol, obesity and inflammatory bowel disorders in both cellular and animal models.
Fresh moringa leaves are tasty in salads, soups, on eggs, and anything savoury. But the fresh leaves are fairly perishable and are ideally consumed within a day of harvesting.
The immature pods can also be eaten like green beans, and are often found in soups. The dried leaf powder offers an alternative to those who can’t grow moringa in their backyard or have access to a farm.
The dried powder can be added to porridge, smoothies, tea, soups, and as a herb to any meal after it has been cooked.