- Moringa oleifera, aka “The Tree of Life,” is a robust and drought-resistant tree that’s long been used as a staple food in many regions of the world.
- It’s often advertised as a “super food” of sorts, but it’s not nutritious enough to make any significant difference in your health.
- There isn’t much research on Moringa oleifera, but there’s some evidence that it may help improve blood sugar levels and be an effective antioxidant and antibacterial soap.
At the outset, Moringa oleifera seems to be perfect.
It hits all the points in the checklist of marketability. Highly nutritious, widespread and easy to source, eaten by enough people we can get a good grasp on it’s safety, lots of studies on it and more coming each month, and it’s got sexy names to market it.
The Tree of Life! The Miracle Tree!
Oooh, shivers down me timbers that’s a bark I want to bite.
There’s reason to be skeptical though. The combination of “cheap to produce” and “has historical usage” can also be read as “high return on investment” and “easy to market” leading it to be sold faster, and in greater amounts, just cause it’s easy cash.
Just call it the tree of miracles, mention how it’s packed full of vitamins and minerals, conveniently forget people take multivitamins and don’t need those vitamins and minerals, and harp on for days about how the leaves have more protein than other leaves!
Wow, the leaves of moringa have 20 to 25% protein content and other leaves have 10%? That’s amazing, I’m gonna tell all my bodybuilding brontosaurus friends since all we can ever eat are leaves—nope, can’t eat chicken or anything, just leaves!
Sarcasm aside, if it manages to prove itself then we could get ourselves another spirulina—a supplement that started out with the intention of just feeding the third world, got studies and grants to reduce the cost to manufacture it, and ended up being a cheap daily supplement.
But until it becomes boring, it’s likely going to be sold at a higher price than needed.
So, right now, is it worth it? What even is Moringa oleifera, why is it interesting, and does it actually hold any promise for us in the first world or is it destined to be just a food product?
Table of Contents
Moringa oleifera, also known as the Drumstick tree, is a dietary supplement that is relatively renowned for its high nutritional value and drought resistance—this makes it a resilient and reliable source of food when it becomes scarce.
It also grows incredibly fast, three to five meters within a year, and can grow in temperate climates across the globe. When it comes to feeding lots of people it’s a really viable intervention to plant these guys everywhere.
While it’s also known as the “Tree of Life” and “Miracle Tree” at times, this is a reference to how it preserves life, and seems like a miracle, when people don’t starve during droughts. It’s sometimes assumed that it’s a miracle supplement because of these names.
Well, Ganoderma lucidum is the “Mushroom of Immortality” but it’s obvious that’s not a literal name. Same goes in this case, the Moringa oleifera tree is not a miracle. It’s interesting though, as it contains some really weird stuff.
Firstly, it contains isothiocyanate molecules. These molecules are a group found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli that underlie their unique benefits against cancer and toxins, but Moringa oleifera is not a cruciferous vegetable. It’s just weird that it includes them.
One of them, RBITC, also looks quite similar to sulforaphane which is a popular supplement in its own right due to anti-cancer properties. We don’t know much about RBITC right now but, hey, at least it’s interesting.
Secondly, it contains paracetamol. They call it “Marumoside A” but, structurally speaking, it’s the exact same molecular structure as the drug we call Tylenol—paracetamol was synthesized outright, and then it was found in this plant. Weird.
It generally contains a large collection of molecules that look . . . similar . . . to other common plant based molecules. For example, most plants contain some trace levels of what’s known as chlorogenic acid but Moringa oleifera decides to get into crypto-chlorogenic acid, for some reason.
Guess it’s a millennial.
I could ramble on a lot longer but I’ll save y’all the boring stuff. A mostly full breakdown of components can be found on Examine but the gist of it is that Moringa oleifera is bloody weird.
And it’s a combination of weird components and being called the Tree of Life that led to hype.
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Personally, I think a major reason Moringa oleifera is popular is due to the low financial cost of it. It’s undeniably healthy, but not that healthy—just sort of another type of cruciferous vegetable.
It’s been linked to the standard antioxidant bunch of claims; improving skin health, protecting organs from oxidative stress, reducing blood pressure, and fighting against bacteria (which may be true, as the leaves of moringa have been used to preserve food products historically).
It also has historical claims pertaining to possible anti-inflammatory effects, and being used in treating arthritis and rheumatism.
Perhaps the only claim that’s relatively unique to Moringa oleifera is that it’s said to be quite healthy for the stomach—easing digestion, reducing spasms and cramps, and such.
Moringa oleifera, unfortunately, has very little human evidence at this point in time. Most studies are conducted in livestock to test the nutritional capacity of this plant. We’re gonna have to stretch a bit for these benefits.
Starting out with, perhaps the weirdest benefit for a dietary supplement, is how Moringa oleifera seems to make good soap—a group of molecules you don’t tend to put in your mouth.
A study from scientists at the London Department of Disease Control found that the leaves of Moringa oleifera, which have traditionally been used to preserve food, at four grams either dry or wet application was just as effective as standard soap in cleaning hands.
Beyond it’s standard antibacterial effects, Moringa oleifera also has antifungal properties and has been used with success in one pilot study to improve the cleanliness of water and one intervention found the seeds reduced coliform counts in drinking water.
So limited human evidence, but somewhat convincing and interesting. The traditional claims of the leaves being able to preserve food seem to be true, and this extends to other ways to sanitize and protect health.
Although a hand soap that’s able to be ingested safely seems rather weird.
Moringa oleifera’s antibacterial effects have been demonstrated to have efficacy when it comes to cleaning a water supply and when it comes to washing your hands, using this plant as a hand soap.
While there doesn’t seem to be any human evidence at this point in time, a few rodent studies have been conducted showing how Moringa oleifera affects the stomach.
This appears to be beyond just an antioxidant effect, however, as the protective effects of the water extract of the leaves can be prevented by blocking a specific serotonin receptor (5-HT3) beforehand—fat soluble extracts also seem protective against ulcers.
Moringa oleifera may have protective effects on the stomach that extend beyond simple antioxidant effects but, due to a lack of human data on the topic, it’s hard to estimate how relevant this is to human supplementing or eating this plant.
A variety of rodent studies have implicated Moringa oleifera in being helpful for improving the management of blood sugar (blood glucose) in the state of diabetes.
Whether the diabetes is caused by experimental drugs that completely obliterate the pancreas like alloxan, insulin resistance from excessive cortisol signaling, genetics, or just weight gain Moringa oleifera seems to have wide-spread protective properties.
One human study even using four grams of Moringa oleifera leaves in type 2 diabetics was found to increase insulin secretion compared to placebo and low dose moringa (one gram) after a single dose.
At this time it isn’t certain what is happening, or why, as researchers suggesting it prevents the absorption of carbohydrates or that it contains insulin-like peptides (which seem to work when injected) are insufficient evidence to explain what was seen in the one human study.
All we know is that it isn’t fully consistent, since another human study found eight grams of the leaf extract over four weeks failed to have any effect on glucose and other markers of proper glucose control.
At this point in time it seems reasonable to assume there’s some manner of interaction between Moringa oleifera and managing healthy blood glucose levels but, unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what’s happening and human evidence is limited.
Bear with us here.
Moringa hasn’t gotten to the point where people have bothered to research what it doesn’t do so there are some, well, technicalities below.
Topics that Moringa oleifera fails at mixed with those where it’s simply lacklustre and not special.
Among the claims for Moringa oleifera include those that suggest this plant can improve heart health. Unlike many other claims, there doesn’t seem to be anything unique here.
As a general rule of thumb, when you make rats fat and unhealthy anything that exerts a bit of an antioxidant effect will be able to show benefits. This is why Moringa oleifera has, at times, been linked to reductions in cholesterol, triglycerides, and improvements in blood pressure.
Hell, it’s even been linked to reducing weight gain in this sense.
However, unlike the preceding sections on stomach health and glucose management where it seems there could be inherent and unique mechanisms of Moringa oleifera these effects on cardiovascular health are just . . . antioxidant effects.
They are seen time and time again and why, technically speaking, there are dozens upon dozens of plants that can be “argued” to reduce weight if we allow animal evidence to be used.
At this moment in time, Moringa oleifera shows about as much promise to cardiovascular health as any healthy vegetable would—since moringa is itself a healthy vegetable. There’s nothing unique or exciting about this plant that wouldn’t extend to broccoli.
A bit of a sidetracking section but I wanted to emphasize it since the most common supporting claim of Moringa oleifera, by far, is that it’s a highly nutritious plant.
Okay. So what?
A normal dose of Moringa oleifera is only “nutritious” when compared to other leaves. And the leaves aren’t even the most nutritious part of the plant. We’re told to get multiple servings of veggies a day, not half a bite of a kale leaf.
Even if you were to eat the seeds, which have more nutrients, there are many other nutritionally dense foods to choose from and most nuts exceed moringa seeds on many micronutrients.
It has more vitamin A than carrots? Oh wow, I have to remember that next time I find somebody with cataracts from vitamin A deficiency here in the first world.
In a world full of surplus food and supplemental multivitamins a plant being sold as a dietary supplement under the claim of “filled with nutrients” is absolutely meaningless.
Human studies are limited and only seem to be investigating the leaves of Moringa oleifera (even though all parts of the tree have been used historically) but it seems two to four grams of a basic water extract seems to be suitable.
When it comes to the leaf extracts, reasonable or even higher than normal levels have not been linked to any side-effects at this point in time.
That being said, when doing toxicological studies in rodents the methanolic extracts of the leaves and the whole leaves seem to be able to cause some harm when overdosed (about six times the dose that exerts maximal health benefits in rats).
For now, consider Moringa oleifera seeds and leaves safe around the four gram dry extract dosage but try not to overdo it too much. Remember that the historical “safety” associated with this plant is people eating the plant itself, not highly concentrated extractions of it.
At the end of the day, Moringa oleifera is a healthy vegetable but nothing about it is astonishing enough for me to prefer it over cruciferous vegetables.
It may have some unique benefits for stomach health and proper glycemic control, so if you happen to be a type two diabetic with ulcers your interest might be piqued right now, but both of those claims have insufficient human data on them.
The most interesting part about Moringa oleifera isn’t even its usage as an oral supplement but, rather, the fact that you can just crush the dry leaves up in your hands and it acts as a sanitary replacement for soap. That’s pretty damn nifty.
It can still have other benefits but, unfortunately, those other benefits like the mild improvements in cardiovascular health just seem due to it being an antioxidant. If we wanted a simple antioxidant then we have better options like grape seed extract already.
Ultimately, Moringa oleifera is okay I guess. It’s just an overhyped food, but a healthy food.