Another of my professional passions is Moringa oleifera, which is a rapidly-growing tree (also known as the horseradish or drumstick tree), that is native to the sub-Himalayan tracts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. This tree was utilized by the ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians; it is now widely cultivated and has become naturalized in many locations in the tropics. It is a perennial softwood tree with timber of low quality, but which for centuries has been advocated for traditional medicinal and industrial uses. It is already an important crop in India, Ethiopia, the Philippines and the Sudan, and is being grown in West, East and South Africa, tropical Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Florida and the Pacific islands.
All parts of the Moringa tree are edible and have long been consumed by humans, and it has been used for biomass production, animal forage, biogas, blue dye (wood), fencing (living trees), fertilizer, green manure (from leaves), gum (from tree trunks), honey- and sugar cane juice-clarifier (powdered seeds), honey (flower nectar), medicine (all plant parts), ornamental plantings, biopesticide, pulp (wood), rope (bark), tannin for tanning hides (bark and gum), water purification (powdered seeds). Moringa seed oil (accounting for 30-40% of the weight of the seeds), also known as Ben oil, is a sweet non-sticking, non-drying oil, that resists rancidity. It has been used in salads, for fine machine lubrication, and in the manufacture of perfume and hair care products. In the West, one of the best known uses for Moringa is the use of powdered seeds to flocculate contaminants and purify drinking water, but the seeds are also eaten green, roasted, powdered and steeped for tea or used in curries. This tree has in recent times been advocated as an outstanding indigenous source of highly digestible protein, Ca, Fe, Vitamin C, and carotenoids suitable for utilization in many of the so-called “developing” regions of the world where undernourishment is a major concern.
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. 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. Nonetheless, well controlled and well documented clinical studies are still by and large absent from the scientific literature and are greatly needed.
Interview with the InFocus Africa Health Network’s health correspondent Linord Moudou, 2013.