The Benefits and Risks of Moringa
Dubbed "the most nutrient-rich plant yet discovered," the moringa tree has also earned the name "the miracle tree" in areas where it's grown. Native to North India, moringa is now also grown in Africa, Arabia, South East Asia, the Pacific and Caribbean Islands, and South America.
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. Here's what the science says.
What is moringa?
All parts of this small tree—leaves, seeds, aroots, and flowers—are technically edible. Though it seems the seeds, the oil from those seeds, and ground powder (via the leaves and stems) are most commonly used, particularly in the U.S. The powder is most often consumed via supplement, made into a "tea," or blended into a smoothie.
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.
Here's what's in 2 teaspoons of moringa powder (aka ground leaves):
- Calories: 15
- Protein: 1g
- Fat: 1g
- Carbohydrate: 2g
- Sugars: 0g
- Fiber: 1g
- Sodium: 7mg
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.
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.
What is moringa used for?
Moringa has long been used for medicinal purposes. In folk medicine, the seeds have been used (raw or crushed) to treat stomach pain, ulcers, poor vision, joint pain, and help with digestion. The herb (leaves and stems) has been used for centuries around the world to treat anemia, anxiety, asthma, blood impurities, bronchitis, chest congestion, cholera, and more.
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.
What are the health benefits of moringa?
Moringa seeds contain a variety of well-known health-promoting compounds. Moringa oil (extracted from the seeds) is mostly made up of monounsaturated fats—a well-known heart-healthy fat. It's also quite rich in alpha-tocopherol, which our body converts to vitamin E.
Moringa seeds and herbs are also touted as having anti-inflammatory, immune-strengthening, ulcer-lowering, anti-bacterial, and anti-oxidant properties. And in animal studies, moringa compounds appear to trigger the pancreas to release insulin. Plus, two compounds in preliminary research suggest it has anti-tumor properties.
But much, if not all, of the research has been has been conducted either "in vitro" (aka cellular models) or in animals, but not in real, live humans. That said, that's typically how research on a food like moringa begins. Once there's research that "works," more is usually to come—and in actual people.
Is moringa safe?
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.
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.