The next time you are served a bowl of sambar, take a careful peek at some of the vegetables floating inside it. If you see something resembling this, you should consider yourself lucky – you’re eating the potential superfood of the future.
‘Drum-stick sambar’ or ‘Murungakkai’ gets its name from the Drumstick tree or Moringa tree; the scientific name is Moringa oleifera. Moringa is one of the sturdiest plants on the planet, able to grow in drought conditions, without fertilizer, in sandy and depleted soil. It takes just six months to reach fruition, during which period it often grows at a foot a month. The adult tree is between 15 to 40 feet tall – and is one of the most useful plants.
Everything from its leaves, to the seeds, seedpods, roots and flowers, is useful for human survival. If you chew the leaves, you get a healthy dose of Vitamins A, B, and C, as well as protein, iron, calcium, and essential amino acids. According to one research article:
…M. oleifera provides more than seven times the vitamin C found in oranges, 10 times the vitamin A found in carrots, 17 times the calcium found in milk, nine times the protein found in yogurt, 15 times the potassium found in bananas and 25 times the iron found in spinach.
The benefits stretch even beyond that. Moringa variants from Saudi Arabia have been demonstrated as an anti-cancer agent. Studies in India have shown that the leaf extract reduced blood glucose levels in patients with Type-II diabetes. The very factors that give the Moringa its resilience – its anti-oxidant agents for one – are actually inbuilt defence mechanisms against environmental stress and pests, which humans ingest and acquire by eating the plant.
The seed oil is good for hair and skin. The plant extract is showing potential in treating Alzheimer’s induced memory-loss. Moringa can lower cholestrol, blood-sugar, and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It’s no wonder that Moringa has been suggested to be the next Superfood.
That the plant was healthy was known as far back as the seventh century BC in India and the seventh century AD in Rome. Modern medicine has verified many of its healing benefits. But Moringa can also be a lifesaver if you stumble onto it in a desert.
By crushing the seeds into a powder, you can make an effective handwash from them (having hygiene in an unhygienic environment can save your life). Mix them with sand, and if you run water through it, you’ll get drinkable H2O. And if you’re into farming, the seed husks can be used as fuel and fertilizer alike.
All its touted benefits put together, the Moringa is a hot contender for the most useful plant on the planet. Which is why organisations from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to the United Nations (UN) are taking an interest in spreading its cultivation to the world’s poorest. In Mexico, The International Moringa Germplasm Collection in Mexico had set up the world’s largest collection of trees from the genus Moringa, identifying 13 different species so far.
In India, where the Moringa species is truly native, is has been known of for millennia in traditional medicines and Ayurvedic practice – the latter of which cites it in healing up to 300 different diseases.
Pest-resistant, disease-free, low-maintenance and incredibly healthy – is the Moringa the solution to global hunger?
In Nigeria in West Africa, Moringa powder is mixed with a local peanut butter to provide a cheap, nutritious and quick meal for children. In soup kitchens in Madagascar, Moringa powder is added to give the kids a nutritious meal. And in India, it is consumed across the country.
The danger with the concept of ‘superfood’ is the idea that a single food item can replace all else. Nutritional studies have yet to reach that level and new foods trend with the season. But finding an alternative to water and fertilizer intensive crops is a necessity in a country that will have 1.7 billion people facing a severe water scarcity by 2050. An awareness of Moringa’s benefits will have other uses besides influencing food trends – it could be incorporated into the Midday Meal scheme which has already been criticized in some states for lacking in protein. In Orissa, it is already a part of some schemes.
As the world grows hotter, drier, and hungrier, sustainable alternatives like Moringa will explode in importance.
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