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The well-known phrase, "What's old is new again," seems fitting for centuries-old moringa, as it has recently made its way into the mainstream wellness and nutrition conversation. But, before you start sprinkling moringa powder into your morning smoothie or adding its leaves to your favorite pasta sauce, it's important to learn more about its potential benefits and its risks.
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Moringa oleifera, sometimes seen as M. oleifera or simply moringa, is also known as the drumstick tree. It's an ancient medicinal plant with roots in northwestern India. However, this tree is drought-resistant and grows well in many parts of the world.
The leaves and other parts of the drumstick tree have been used for thousands of years in alternative medicine to treat conditions ranging from skin infections to cholera. Moringa has recently made its way into smoothies and onto store shelves, where it's sold as a dietary supplement and promoted for its antioxidant properties and high vitamin levels. In fact, moringa is becoming so popular that you can now purchase the powdered-leaf supplement online and find it in many juice and smoothie chains across the country.
Ayla Barmmer, M.S., RD, of Boston Functional Nutrition, describes the moringa tree as extremely versatile for a variety of nutritional purposes.
"Every part of the tree is used either for nutritive or commercial purposes," she explains.
Moringa's nutrient density has led to its use a treatment for malnutrition in some parts of the world. In fact, a review in the journal Food Science and Human Wellness found that M. oleifera provides more than 7 times the vitamin C of oranges, 10 times the vitamin A of carrots, 17 times the calcium of milk, 9 times the protein of yogurt, 15 times the potassium of bananas and 25 times the iron of spinach.
Researchers tested the nutrition of moringa leaves and found it delivers:
• Vitamin A
• B vitamins
• Vitamin C
• Vitamin D
• Vitamin E
One tablespoon of a typical moringa powder delivers 35 calories, 3 grams each of fiber and protein and 10 percent of your daily value of iron.
Moringa is also known for its phytochemical content. Most notably, it contains cancer-fighting compounds known as glucosinolates, which are also found in cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli. With a nutritional résumé this long, it's easy to see why many people are eyeing moringa as the next great superfood for modern diets.
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You may see it on the menu more often at juice and smoothie shops and added to food products like energy bars. Moringa can be purchased in multiple forms, but Georgia Rounder, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian based in Brooklyn, New York, says it is most commonly purchased and consumed in either a powder or capsule form. A less common form of moringa—moringa oil, also called ben oil—is also available.
"The seeds of moringa yield an oil high in oleic acid and tocopherols that can be used as a great substitution for olive oil," Rounder says. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid that's known to play a role in lowering cholesterol and is connected to a lower risk for developing heart disease.
The entire plant is edible, from roots to leaves, but it does have a bitter taste. That can make it difficult for many people to enjoy in everyday foods. "Some people prefer taking it encapsulated for this reason," Barmmer says, "but others mix it into sauces or more heavily spiced meals."
Cooking moringa has benefits that extend beyond its taste too. "Cooking helps to reduce its content of phytate, which is an antinutrient that can make it more difficult to utilize the other nutrients it contains," Barmmer says. She also notes that moringa seed powder can be found fermented and/or sprouted, which helps with digestibility and nutrient bioavailability.
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Research suggests that moringa is safe for humans to consume, but the quantity that is safe can vary from person to person.
"Moringa is classified as a 'nutritive herb,'" Barmmer says. "Herbs in this category—another is nettle leaf—are closer to a nutritious food, such as spinach, than they are to a potent medicinal herb, so generally they can be consumed in high quantities to the tolerance of the individual person."
However, the phytate found in moringa can cause adverse reactions if consumed in high quantities.
"Moringa may cause digestive distress if it isn't cooked, fermented or sprouted, depending on the part of the plant used," Barmmer says.
Barmmer also explains that even though there are no known precautions or reasons people shouldn't consume moringa, its iron content may be a concern for some.
"Those that need to avoid excessive iron in the diet and in supplements may need to be cautious," she says. Too much iron can cause gastrointestinal distress such as nausea, vomiting and constipation. Extreme iron intakes can also cause iron overload, which is uncommon when consuming iron from dietary sources, but concentrated amounts or supplements can be cause for concern, especially in children.
Dietary supplements, unlike nutrients, don't have a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). Although moringa has been used for thousands of years in alternative medicine, the scientific research on the tree as a dietary supplement is limited. According to an analysis published in the Journal of Toxicology, a daily limit of 70 grams of Moringa oleifera leaves is suggested to prevent potential cumulative toxicity. However, individual factors play a role in the quantity that is safe to consume.
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Dietary supplements are unregulated in the United States. However, some consumer groups test and verify many products on the market today. Manufacturers should be able to provide contaminant and adulteration information, according to Barmmer.
"Like all plants, moringa may be contaminated with heavy metals from the soil, depending on the region where it's grown," she says.
Other concerns for supplements are counterfeit, consistency and potency, especially in dietary supplements sourced from other countries.
"Consumers can avoid this by connecting with local herbal distributors and asking questions. Just like you'd talk to your local farmer about how they grow their crops, talk to your local herbalist about where to source quality herbs. Ask, 'Have the herbs been tested for adulteration or contamination?'" Rounder says.
Additional sources of information on dietary supplements can be found online. "The Office of Dietary Supplements provides comprehensive fact sheets for nearly every supplement you can imagine and is a great resource for finding accurate, up-to-date information on supplements like moringa," Rounder explains. "The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health provides the most current research behind herbs, botanicals and even treatments like acupuncture."
Just adding moringa powder to a smoothie won't make you instantly healthier, but it will give you a little boost of vitamins, minerals and fiber. The nutrients found in moringa are also found in more commonly eaten foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds and animal proteins.
It isn't necessary to consume moringa daily to reap the same benefits of those nutrients, and it's important to remember that no dietary supplement can take the place of eating a varied diet with adequate nutrient intake.
If you do decide to add moringa to your daily intake, be sure to know what you're purchasing and how much you're consuming. Also, be sure to tell your doctor in the event you begin to experience any issues with side effects.