Americans are starting to pay more attention to moringa these days. Some are touting this tropical tree as the newest and greatest superfood. And all the excitement is understandable: Moringa leaves and seed pods are packed with protein and vitamins. Its nutritional value rivals that of milk, yogurt and eggs.
But people in Asia and Africa have been eating it for years. In India, we call moringa the drumstick tree — for its long, drumstick-like seed pods. It's easy to come by in Mumbai, where I grew up. My mother would use the young, tender pods to make this amazing lentil stew called sambhar.
My mom was excited to hear I was reporting on moringa. "It used to be our favorite, especially with hot rice and a big dollop of fresh, homemade butter," she says.
It's true: I loved this stuff, even as a kid who generally rejected wholesome foods. The pods' outer skins are too tough and fibrous to eat. So you've got to fish them out of the stew, suck out the juicy seeds and flesh and chuck the skin. They taste like green beans — but sweeter. "Although you fussed over a lot of vegetables," my mom says, "you never fussed over drumstick sambhar, which was very surprising."
Recently, researchers around the world have taken a renewed interest in this hardy plant and its many nutritional benefits. And they're learning that all that moringa I gorged on as a child might have been healthier than I ever realized.
"Moringa is truly one of those plants in which all parts of the plant can be used," says Jed Fahey, a biochemist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has been studying this tree for two decades. It makes for great firewood, and both its leaves and pods are edible. Mature seeds can be used to make vegetable oil. It grows wicked fast, it's drought resistant — and a couple of dried seeds, crushed up, can purify a bottle of contaminated water.
Plus, it thrives in the dryland tropics of India, Africa and South America. "It grows in areas that overlap almost perfectly with the areas of the world which are undernourished," Fahey notes.
That's why, Fahey says, its real value lies in its ability to feed poor communities in Asia and Africa — which is where it grows best. The leaves, which taste a bit peppery, like arugula, are a good source of easily digestible protein as well as vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. The seed pods are also rich in protein and high in omega-3 fatty acids.
As Americans learn more about moringa, they're developing an appetite for it as well. Lately, moringa supplements and energy bars are becoming fashionable in the U.S.
Some of these moringa suppliers source responsibly, Fahey says, but others do not. About 15 years ago, supplement-makers encouraged subsistence farmers in Senegal and Bangladesh to start growing moringa instead of other crops, he says. When these companies couldn't turn a profit selling their moringa products, the farmers — who had stopped growing food they could use to feed their families — paid the price. "They were really left in dire straits," Fahey says.
If you can find responsibly sourced moringa and afford to try it, Fahey is all for taking a taste. But here in the U.S., we can get the same nutritional benefits from more commonplace vegetables like broccoli, which grows locally and costs less to import. "I just think that we should remember that [moringa] is a novelty at the moment," Fahey says.
He and other scientists are still looking into its medicinal value, and Fahey will be among those presenting at an international moringa conference in November. There's good evidence that moringa has some anti-diabetic and cancer prevention properties, but the research is still in its preliminary stages.
Meanwhile, my mom tells me that in southern India, some folks have other ideas: "They thought it was an aphrodisiac." It's true. In some Tamil movies, women who are having marital troubles will try serving up moringa for dinner. At least at this point, there's no science to back that strategy.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And now we take a look at what could be the next American super-food craze - moringa. This tropical tree produces leaves and seed pods packed with proteins and vitamins. People in Asia and Africa have been eating it for years. And this hearty plant may be not only nutritious but able to stave off disease. NPR's Maanvi Singh reports.
MAANVI SINGH, BYLINE: In India, moringa is known as the drumstick tree because it has these long, drumstick-like seed pods. It's common in Mumbai, where I grew up. My mother would use young, tender pods to make this delicious lentil stew called sambar. I called her up to reminisce.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It used to be our favorite, especially with hot rice and a big dollop of fresh, homemade butter.
SINGH: I loved this stuff, even as a kid who generally rejected wholesome foods.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I mean, oddly, you fussed over a lot of vegetables. You never fussed over drumstick sambar, which was very surprising.
SINGH: It turns out, all that moringa I gorged on as a child might have been healthier than I ever realized. Jed Fahey at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has been studying this tree for years. He says it grows wicked fast, it's drought resistant and it makes for good firewood. But more importantly...
JED FAHEY: Its leaves are an extraordinarily good source of vitamin A and vitamin C and iron.
SINGH: The seed pods are also a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. All told, its nutritional value rivals that of milk, yogurt and eggs. That's why Fahey says its real value lies in its ability to feed poor communities across Asia and Africa, which is where it grows best. But lately, moringa supplements and energy bars are becoming fashionable in the U.S. Fahey encourages everyone to try it. It does taste great, like a green bean but better.
FAHEY: I just think that we should remember that this is essentially a novelty at the moment.
SINGH: He and other scientists are still looking into its medicinal value. There's good evidence that moringa has some anti-diabetic and cancer prevention properties, but the research is still in its early stages. Meanwhile, my mom says, in southern India, some folks have other thoughts.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter) They thought it was an aphrodisiac.
SINGH: Yeah, at this point, there's no scientific proof to back that one up. I'm Maanvi Singh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.