There is a simple tree known as “the drumstick tree,” or scientifically as Moringa oleifera, which is commonly touted as a superfood since it is rich in nutrients, antioxidants and other beneficial compounds. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to this small tree that is native to India, and there are some important cautions to know before consuming it.
What is Moringa?
The Moringa oleifera tree is a small tree that is native to India but that grows in many parts of the world. The entire tree is considered edible and it is known for its long twisted pods, from which it derives its name. “Murungai” means “twisted pod” in the Tamil language. (1)
The Moringa tree has several names in different parts of the world including its common name of “horseradish tree,” since its roots taste similar to horseradish root when raw. In Ayurvedic medicine it is known as shigru and in Spanish it is referred to as Jacinto.
Moringa is beneficial as a food because of its ability to grow in a variety of climates, especially subtropical climates. In fact, Moringa Oleifera grows in virtually all countries where malnutrition is widespread and may be a great part of a comprehensive plan to alleviate malnutrition throughout the world. In fact:
It is believed that the moringa tree originated in northern India and was being used in Indian medicine around 5,000 years ago, and there are also accounts of it being utilized by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. This tree was, and still is, considered a panacea, and is referred to as the ‘The Wonder Tree’, ‘The Divine Tree’, and ‘The Miracle Tree’ amongst many others. (2)
It is also important to note that there are technically 13 different species of Moringa tree, though for simplicity, I’m referencing the Moringa oleifera tree in this post and using the common name of just “Moringa.”
Potential Benefits of Moringa
The same properties that make Moringa beneficial in fighting malnourishment lead many to believe that this plant is beneficial for everyone. It is well-documented for its nutritive abilities and there are even supplement companies based entirely around the benefits of Moringa, (though it is widely available in many forms including capsules, teas, and other forms at much lower prices).
The leaves are considered the most nutritious part and are most often used in supplements. Since a large part of the population is considered “overfed but undernourished,” Moringa may be a useful tea and supplement for many people, even in the developed world, but it is important to understand the cautions below, especially concerning the roots and stems of this plant.
These are a few of the benefits attributed to Moringa:
1. High in Nutrients
As mentioned, Moringa is a source of antioxidants and some vitamins, including:
Perhaps you’ve seen some of the health claims that gram-for-gram, Moringa has more protein than yogurt, more potassium than bananas, more calcium than milk and more Vitamin C than oranges.(3) While this is technically true, it is important to note the distinction that this is “gram for gram,” and not by volume. Since Moringa leaves are relatively lightweight, 100 grams of Moringa leaves would be substantially more volume than 100 grams of an orange.
Consider this: a medium size orange is approximately 130 grams, or 4.5 ounces. Now consider a leafy substance like Moringa leaves. For simplicity, we’ll use a similar leaf, Spinach, for comparison. The FDA estimates that 1 cup of raw spinach is about 30 grams. This means that to get the same “gram for gram” comparison, a person would have to eat 4+ cups of fresh spinach leaves to consume the same number of grams as one orange.
This comparison becomes even more glaring with some of the other nutrients. For instance, it is claimed that “gram for gram” this plant contains two times the protein of yogurt, but 100 grams of yogurt is only about 1/2 cup, while a person would have to consume 3+ cups (or six times as much by volume) fresh leaves to get to 100 grams.
While I’m not discounting the nutrients in this plant, I show this comparison to point out that for those of us eating a balanced diet, Moringa may not be as beneficial as it is to those who are truly malnourished.
Additionally, while it is a good natural source of the nutrients listed above, 1 cup of fresh Moringa leaves provides only 10-20% of the RDA for these nutrients listed above, so a person would have to consume a lot to obtain “superfood” levels of these nutrients. Most Moringa supplements are dried, not fresh, which reduces the amount of certain nutrients and concentrates others.
2. May Reduce Inflammation
Though Moringa isn’t a spectacular source of nutrients for those already consuming a nutrient-dense diet, it may have another benefit that makes it helpful for those in the developed world. The levels of antioxidants present in the leaves may help reduce certain types of inflammation.
Moringa has been found to contain Flavonoids, such as quercetin, as well as beta-carotene, Vitamin C, and Chlorogenic acid. Quercetin is sometimes used as a natural antihistamine for its ability to stabilize histamine production in the body. Chlorogenic acid is also found (in higher amounts) in coffee and has been found to have a balancing effect on blood sugar in some lab trials. (4)
As blood sugar imbalances have been linked to diabetes, inflammation and other problems, balancing blood sugar may be an important step for reducing inflammation.
As this article explains:
In one study, 30 women took seven grams of moringa leaf powder every day for three months. This reduced fasting blood sugar levels by 13.5% (5).
Additionally, a small study in six diabetic patients found that adding 50 grams of Moringa leaves to a meal reduced the rise in blood sugar by 21% (6).
I personally wouldn’t use Moringa just for its blood sugar balancing abilities, as quite a bit must be consumed regularly to see the benefits, but for some people it may be helpful as part of an overall diet and lifestyle plan (though certainly check with a doctor or specialist to make sure it is safe and won’t interact with any medications before taking it).
3. Positive Effects on Cholesterol
Moringa has also been studied for its ability to reduce cholesterol levels in human trials. This may be significant with the emerging research discounting the effectiveness and safety of Statin drugs. From Chris Kresser:
Statin drugs do not reduce the risk of death in 95% of the population, including healthy men with no pre-existing heart disease, women of any age, and the elderly.
Statin drugs do reduce mortality for young and middle-aged men with pre-existing heart disease, but the benefit is small and not without significant adverse effects, risks and costs.
Aspirin works just as well as statins do for preventing heart disease, and is 20 times more cost effective.(7)
Many foods that help reduce inflammation in the body may also have positive effect on blood cholesterol levels and eating a diet high in antioxidant rich foods and vegetables and low in sugar may also be beneficial, but Moringa seems to be especially beneficial in human and animal studies. (source)
4. Help for Breastfeeding Mothers
Another often-cited use for Moringa is to help increase milk supply in breastfeeding mothers. In fact, certain supplement companies regularly recommend their Moringa-based supplements as a prenatal vitamin and during breastfeeding (although see please see the cautions below before taking this supplement if you are a woman of childbearing age!).
The only scientific backing I could find for the use of Moringa as a galactogogue (to increase milk supply) is in an old study from the Philippines that looked at the use of this plant for mothers with pre-term babies in the first three days of breastfeeding only, and found:
In women during postpartum days 3-5 (after giving birth to preterm infants), supplementation of 250mg moringa oleifera leaf extract twice daily appears to increase milk production in a time dependent manner on the first day of supplementation (31% increase over placebo) as well as the second (48%) and third (165%) day. (8)
Though there are some anecdotal accounts of women using Moringa to increase milk supply (especially with this particular product), I couldn’t find any other research to back this up, and perhaps any increase in milk supply would just be due to increase nutrient consumption, which is important during breastfeeding.
5. Possible Arsenic Protection
Though it hasn’t been studied in humans, there is some evidence (from studies on rats and mice) that certain compounds in the leaves of the Moringa plant may be protective against arsenic poisoning.
Observational studies indicate that long-term exposure to arsenic may increase the risk of cancer and heart disease (9, 10).
Several studies of mice and rats show that the leaves and seeds of Moringa oleiferamay protect against some effects of arsenic toxicity (11, 12, 13).These studies are promising, but it is not yet known whether this also applies to humans.
6. Natural Energy Booster
This is one benefit of Moringa that definitely seems to have a large amount of anecdotal evidence and this may be due to the amino acid profile of this plant. Many people in online forums and discussion boards claim that they have seen a noticeable increase in energy levels from taking Moringa, though I found relatively little science to back this up and “energy levels” are one of the most difficult factors to measure objectively. (14)
Simply consuming more vitamins, minerals and amino acids may lead to an increase in energy in many people, so it would be difficult to know if this benefit is specific to Moringa or just a result of consuming more nutrients in general.
Cautions about Moringa
Like many herbs and plants used as remedies, certain parts of the plant are beneficial while others can be harmful in some way. This is true with elderberries, which are excellent at helping boost the immune system, but whose leave and stems should be avoided because of the natural Cyanogenic glycoside content, which is toxic to humans.
The leaves of the Moringa oleifera tree are generally considered to be safe and edible, but there is some controversy regarding the roots and stems and their potentially harmful effects, especially in women. These parts of the plant may not only act as a contraceptive (both temporary or permanent) but may also lead to miscarriage and other problems. (15)
Important: some sources claim that the leaves have this effect as well, and I personally avoid Moringa for this reason until further research emerges.
There is research showing a potentially immunosuppressive and cytotoxic effect of the seeds of the plant, and extracts or supplements that contain the roots, seeds and stems should be avoided for this reason until more research is done. (16)
Additionally, the leaves of the plant have been shown to have a mildly laxative effect and may cause digestive disturbances in some people.
Some sources recommend avoiding Moringa entirely as the nutrients it contains can be easily obtained from other sources and a well-balanced diet.
How to Use Moringa
Moringa seems to be most potent when fresh, and since the tree readily grows in most climates, it is possible to cultivate the plant for use as an herbal remedy. Dr. Mercola reports that he has done this but doesn’t recommend it because the leaves are very small and time consuming to harvest. (17)
It is also available in many forms like dried leaves and capsules, though due to its possible effects on hormones and cholesterol, it is important to check with a doctor or specialist before using.
There are definitely some potential benefits to Moringa, especially in countries where malnourishment is widespread, but it isn’t as exceptional of a nutrient source as it is often claimed to be and there may be much better sources of these important nutrients for those who live in the developed world.
Additionally, the potentially negative effects on hormones and fertility warrant caution and are the reason I avoid using this plant, at least until more research is done.