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What is moringa? Everything you need to know about the superfood

This nutrient-dense superfood has been used consistently in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, so why isn't it on more people’s radar?
What is Moringa?
Learn how moringa is traditionally used, the health benefits it provides and some ways to use it.Zoe Adjonyoh

Moringa, a plant known for its medicinal properties, has been all over my timeline for years. I even dedicated a section of my cookbook to it. It is easy to blend moringa powder into smoothies, soups and sauces, bake into bars, brownies and bread or mix into energy drinks or shots in the same way you would spirulina or wheatgrass, for example — it has that grassy, earthy bitterness to it. Its oil is used for hair and skincare, but I use it to flavor and finish food as I would olive oil.

This nutrient-dense superfood has been used consistently in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, so why isn't it on more people’s radar?

A moringa producer harvests organic moringa in his field in Bunjako Island, Uganda.Camille Delbos/Art in All of Us / Corbis via Getty Images

Like baobab, it is catching on quickly in the Northern Hemisphere. And, just like baobab, nothing is going to waste from this plant, as all of its parts — leaves, seeds, roots and flowers — are technically edible. But, it's important to note, the preparation required to safely consume it means the powdered form is the most popular way to enjoy it. Its soft, verdant, fern-like leaves with white blossoms look like they come straight out of a fairytale. And this ingredient has fairytale qualities that can’t be denied.

What is moringa?

The moringa tree, also known as as the drumstick tree or horseradish tree, is one of the fastest-growing trees in the world and is drought-resistant, which means it is remarkably durable to farm. It's also a nutritional lifesaver for Masai communities where it is difficult to grow other types of vegetation.

A moringa producer in Uganda holds freshly harvested moringa in his hand.Camille Delbos/Art in All of Us / Corbis via Getty Images

The "Miracle Tree," as it has been called, is indigenous to South Asia, specifically the Indian subcontinent, and also grows across West and East Africa, Central America and the Caribbean, some parts of South America and as well as Oceania.

How is moringa traditionally used?

In many cultures, the leaves are mostly eaten raw, boiled, steamed or roasted. They are also used for preparation of tea, which is traditionally consumed to prevent against diseases and to boost health. My wife Sara and I always serve moringa tea infusions at the end of our Sankofa dinners to ease digestion and have found many new fans who have become daily moringa tea drinkers as a result.

Many cultures consume moringa in tea form.Alamy Stock Photo

In Ghana, these leaves or powder are used by traditional medical practitioners to help treat skin irritations, anemia, headaches, blood pressure, inflammation, erectile dysfunction, diarrhea or fever. It is also added to diets to help combat poor nutrition or malnutrition.

For its ease of application, the powdered form is most common and is created by drying and grinding the leaves to preserve its quality. Its high zeatin levels block the degradation of chlorophyll in the leaves so they don’t lose their healing effect, which also makes it more durable for transportation and storage.

What are the benefits of moringa?

It’s hard to talk about moringa without it getting all science-y about its goodness, so for those of who don’t like science, here’s the top line: For those who want to cover their extra daily need for numerous essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements without having to resort to synthetically produced nutritional supplements, moringa is where it’s at.

Moringa is commercially sold most commonly in powdered form.

Moringa is rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, iron and protein. It also contains eight essential amino acids, more than 90 nutrients, including 46 different antioxidants (ascorbic acid, carotenoids, flavonoids and phenolic compounds) and 36 anti-inflammatory compounds (isothiocyanate and phenolic derivatives), which can help boost liver function. And, much like turmeric, it’s been known to help with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease.

The leaves contain more vitamin C than oranges, more magnesium than eggs, more vitamin B3 than peanuts and more vitamin B2 than bananas, more potassium than bananas and more vitamin A than carrots. Which means moringa can contribute to everything from better vision and immunity to bone health and skin radiance.

Moringa has also been shown to help stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels in patients with diabetes, as well as help treat symptoms and other medical conditions associated with diabetes.

If you are an expecting mother or currently breastfeed, moringa powder (rather than root or seed) is ancestrally believed to help with the production of breast milk, though it hasn't been extensively studied yet. No, it wont turn your milk green, but it does make a fantastic natural food coloring (we love to make moringa focaccia, for instance). It's rich in three plant sterols that may encourage your body to produce more breast milk. Plus, the baby gets access to all those amino acids and histidine in the plant which can aid their growth and development.

For the vegans and lactose intolerant, moringa leaves can provide much more calcium than milk, more protein than yogurt and more iron than spinach.

Moringa can give athletes a boost, too, due to its high content of iron and vitamins A and C, which are responsible for constant and sufficient supply of oxygen to blood and stabilized blood circulation. In addition, numerous amino acids and a high calcium content positively influence the growth of muscle mass, and the antioxidants provide additional protection to the cell tissue during increased physical activity.

A moringa producer in Uganda holds dried lemongrass moringa in his hand.Camille Delbos/Art in All of Us / Corbis via Getty Images

In some West African communities, children suffering from malnutrition are sometimes given a mix of moringa and milk replacement as boost of nutrients, like calcium, that are important for bone growth and brain development. Eight ounces of milk contains roughly 300 to 400 milligrams of calcium per 100-gram serving, while dried moringa leaves can provide more than 4,000 milligrams of calcium per 100-gram serving, which is 240 milligrams of calcium per tablespoon of moringa powder. That being said, studies suggest that daily consumption of moringa leaves should not exceed 70 grams — or 1 tablespoon, or 6 grams, of moringa powder — to avoid excess iron intake.

What are some ways to use moringa?

As someone with a super fast metabolism who exerts a lot of energy every day, I use moringa on a daily basis to keep me feeling strong and regular, as it provides me with two tablespoons of daily fiber.

I’ve been dishing out moringa to all my Golden Girls for some time because it can boost the immune system, aid vision health, improve metabolism and stimulates blood circulation, among other things that concern an aging population. The incredibly high amounts of antioxidants in moringa which are essential protect us against free radicals. My motto is: A cup of moringa tea a day keeps the bones and eyes all OK.

Moringa is sold in health-food stores and online in tea, capsule, powder and extract forms. There are so many different varieties of moringa and each will be slightly different in terms of quality and quantity of health benefits. Always check the back for nutritional info and consult your doctor before taking any new supplements. This plant is certainly not going to replace a good doctor, but it could replace a large amount of costly supplements you currently rely on.

It has a very earthy taste, akin to nutty spinach and reminiscent of kelp, spirulina and other similar green superfoods, and is therefore not a great palate-pleaser on its own. So, here is a quick and easy recipe to incorporate moringa into your diet to boost your immune system and give your day a feel-good factor.

Moringa Pesto

Moringa Pesto

Zoe Adjonyoh

Moringa serves everyone, or it could serve everyone. I believe it could be a step toward democratizing health supplements, but you might notice that it is strangely harder to find in the U.S. than it should be. Any minute now, a white celebrity is probably going to be telling you all about the magic of moringa. There's no harm in spreading the knowledge, but if you can, purchase it from those whose communities have been farming it and extolling its virtues for thousands of years.