Moringa oleifera: a food plant with multiple medicinal uses

Moringa trees have been used to combat malnutrition, especially among infants and nursing mothers.
Three non-governmental organizations in particular—Trees for Life, Church World Service and
Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization—have advocated Moringa as “natural nutrition for the
tropics.” Leaves can be eaten fresh, cooked, or stored as dried powder for many months without
refrigeration, and reportedly without loss of nutritional value. Moringa is especially promising as a
food source in the tropics because the tree is in full leaf at the end of the dry season when other
foods are typically scarce.
A large number of reports on the nutritional qualities of Moringa now exist in both the scientific and
the popular literature. Any readers who are familiar with Moringa will recognize the oft-reproduced
characterization made many years ago by the Trees for Life organization, that “ounce-for-ounce,
Moringa leaves contain more Vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach,
more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas,” and that the protein quality of
Moringa leaves rivals that of milk and eggs. These readers will also recognize the oral histories
recorded by Lowell Fuglie in Senegal and throughout West Africa, who reports (and has extensively
documented on video) countless instances of lifesaving nutritional rescue that are attributed to
Moringa (47,48). In fact, the nutritional properties of Moringa are now so well known that there
seems to be little doubt of the substantial health benefit to be realized by consumption of Moringa
leaf powder in situations where starvation is imminent. Nonetheless, the outcomes of well controlled
and well documented clinical studies are still clearly of great value.
In many cultures throughout the tropics, differentiation between food and medicinal uses of plants
(e.g. bark, fruit, leaves, nuts, seeds, tubers, roots, flowers), is very difficult since plant uses span
both categories and this is deeply ingrained in the traditions and the fabric of the community (85).
Thus, Table 1 in this review captures both nutritional and medicinal references as they relate to
Moringa, whilst avoiding most of the better known agro-forestry and water purification applications
of this plant. The interested reader is also directed to the very comprehensive reviews of the
nutritional attributes of Moringa prepared by the NGOs mentioned earlier (in particular, see references
Phytochemicals are, in the strictest sense of the word, chemicals produced by plants. Commonly,
though, the word refers to only those chemicals which may have an impact on health, or on flavor,
texture, smell, or color of the plants, but are not required by humans as essential nutrients. An
examination of the phytochemicals of Moringa species affords the opportunity to examine a range of
fairly unique compounds. In particular, this plant family is rich in compounds containing the simple
sugar, rhamnose, and it is rich in a fairly unique group of compounds called glucosinolates and
isothiocyanates (10,38). For example, specific components of Moringa preparations that have been
reported to have hypotensive, anticancer, and antibacterial activity include
4-(4′-O-acetyl-a-L-rhamnopyranosyloxy)benzyl isothiocyanate [1],
4-(a-L-rhamnopyranosyloxy)benzyl isothiocyanate [2], niazimicin [3], pterygospermin [4], benzyl
isothiocyanate [5], and 4-(a-L-rhamnopyranosyloxy)benzyl glucosinolate [6]. While these compounds
are relatively unique to the Moringa family, it is also rich in a number of vitamins and minerals as well
as other more commonly recognized phytochemicals such as the carotenoids (including -carotene or
pro-vitamin A). These attributes are all discussed extensively by Lowell Fuglie (47) and others, and
will be the subject of a future review in this series.