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What is moringa and should I be incorporating it into my diet?

The American wellness world is just now getting privy to moringa, a vegetable people around the world have used in food and medicine for centuries. My earliest memories of it involve my mom plucking its delicate leaflets to add a mild, earthy bite to Filipino dishes such as suam na mais, a garlicky-sweet, rainy-day corn soup. In fact, she grows her own moringa (“malunggay” in Tagalog) in our backyard outside San Francisco.

I now also see the sprightly greens in various forms at juiceries, and in tea and energy bar aisles at grocery stores. What’s all the buzz about moringa, whose supposedly myriad health benefits have earned it the nickname, “the tree of life?” I asked nutrition experts to help me separate truth from wellness hype.

What is moringa, anyway?

Also known as the horseradish or drumstick tree, Moringa oleifera is a fast-growing, drought-resistant genus of tree native to the Himalayan foothills, which sprawl across India, Pakistan, and Nepal. But it’s also been cultivated in many tropical and subtropical regions, including Ethiopia, the Caribbean, the Philippines, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

The entire plant, from the roots and tubers, to the leaves and flowers, is edible. People often eat the leaves dried or fresh, or in powdered form (you might recognize Kuli Kuli’s packets of moringa powder from grocery and health food stores), as well as the seeds, which can be brewed in tea.

The history of moringa as a healing plant has deep roots. Not only does the tree figure prominently in Ayurvedic medicine, but ancient Egyptians used moringa oil for cosmetic purposes.

Courtesy of Melissa Pandika

What are some of the potential health benefits of moringa?

Recently, researchers are testing remedies from cultures that revere moringa as a healing plant, Robin Foroutan, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Mic. “We often find there is a lot of validity and truth in what practitioners have been doing for thousands of years.”

But the research is limited, says Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian nutritionist in California. For instance, most of the studies on moringa in chronic disease have been conducted in cells in a lab and animals, and only a few in humans. (Although animals can be useful in modeling disease, our numerous biological differences prevent us from drawing any definitive conclusions about how moringa affects chronic disease in humans from animal studies alone.)

Like many plant foods, Palmer says moringa leaves pack several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and potassium, important for heart health, immunity, and a plethora of other body functions. (Indeed, the nutrient density and drought resistant properties of moringa have led some to use it to curb malnutrition.)

Moringa is also high in certain antioxidants, Foroutan adds. Antioxidants help rid the body of free radicals, reactive molecules that, in excessive amounts, can damage protein, DNA, and fatty tissue, according to Healthline. Eventually, this can result in chronic, low-grade inflammation" — a simmering wildfire that leads to a number of health problems,” such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, she says.

A limited number of human and animal studies suggest that moringa could help lower cholesterol. Other studies, primarily in animals, hint that it could regulate blood sugar levels, important for managing and preventing diabetes. Foroutan notes that moringa contains terpenoids, compounds that can help the pancreas create more insulin, a hormone crucial for controlling blood sugar. A few studies have also shown that components of moringa can kill certain types of cancer cells grown in the lab.

As with many studies on nutritional supplements and herbs, you won’t see the same wealth of research evidence on the purported health benefits of moringa as you would with a pharmaceutical drug. The important thing to note, though, is that “it’s pretty safe for most people at reasonable doses,” Foroutan says. However, she doesn’t recommend moringa for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, due to the scarcity of research on its effects in these populations. People who are on blood sugar or blood pressure lowering drugs should also exercise caution and consult with their doctor if they want to start consuming moringa, she adds.

How does moringa taste?

Palmer likens the leaves to arugula, which I agree with, although I find moringa a bit milder — more like “arugula lite.” On the other hand, Foroutan finds moringa “similar to green tea.” I get more of the earthy, green tea flavor from the powdered form.

How can I incorporate it into my diet?

While I prefer cooked moringa leaves, Foroutan suggests that people less familiar with the plant blend it in powdered form into a smoothie, or chia seed pudding. Because the flavor is so subtle, “you probably won’t taste it at all and still get the benefits,” she says. She suggests starting out with a teaspoon of moringa powder. The packaging on some products might recommend a little more, but “I would say to start with one and go from there.”

But Palmer notes that while moringa may be the new “superfood” on the block, it’s hardly the only one. “While I’m sure it has health properties, all plant foods have various phytochemicals (plant compounds that may improve health) and benefits,” she says. “It’s important to eat a balanced diet that includes a rainbow of superfoods in the diet.” After all, like reishi mushrooms and goji berries, it’s only a matter of time before the wellness industry seizes on another food long used in other cultures and turns it into the next “trend.”