'Miracle vegetable' could help fight malnutrition

Posted: 10 June 2009

Author: Henrylito Tacio

Largely unnoticed, a Third World War is under way. It is a silent war and the enemy is malnutrition. Its victims are mainly children living in less developed countries. And one weapon waiting to be used more widely to combat it is a 'miracle vegetable', Moringa, popularly known in my country - the Philippines - as malunggay.

Moringa tree pod, Hawaii
Moringa tree pod, Hawaii
Moringa tree pod, Hawaii. Photo © Forest & Kim Starr
In the Philippines, the number of undernourished people reported in 2003 was 15.2 million. That was 18 per cent of the total population of the country at that time. The number has grown since then. A recent Gallup poll placed the poverty and hunger rate in the country at 40 per cent - or more than double that 2003 figure.

Globally, despite the efforts of governments and aid agencies, undernutrition still affects 2-3 billion people worldwide. And, according to a 2008 World Health Organisation (WHO) report, the numbers affected are growing steadily worse in Africa. The number of children in sub-Saharan Africa suffering from malnutrition rose from 27 million in 1980 to 44 million in 2005, WHO reported. Rising food prices last year made things worse say researchers at Sussex University. (See: Nearly half sub-Saharan children malnourished) One solution to the problem lies in the production of Moringa oleifera, more popularly known as malunggay. The 'miracle vegetable,' as some scientists called it, has been promoted by WHO as a low-cost health enhancer in poor countries around the globe. The 'natural nutrition for the tropics' is how the Florida-based Education Concerns for Hunger Organization described malunggay.

Spectacular results

"We have always had problems with the classical approach to treating malnourished children," said a West Africa doctor in Senegal. "This was based on industrial products: whole milk powder, vegetable oil and sugar. All these things are expensive. When you tell a parent to go out and buy these things - this can be truly costly for him."

Children sorting moringa
Children sorting moringa
Children sorting moringa, West Africa. Photo © E.Demeulenaere / Moringa News
But in the case of malunggay, it's a different story. "It is locally available and the people themselves can produce it," the doctor added. "We have done experiments in treating malnourished children with this plant and the results have been really spectacular."

Malunggay can also be used as a weapon against poverty and malnutrition in the Philippines. It is so rich in nutrients and vitamins that its image is used as the official logo of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) of the Philippines Department of Science and Technology. "If Manny Pacquiao shows how a Filipino fights in the ring," said one commentator, "malunggay is the symbol of Filipino fight against malnutrition."

The Department of Agriculture (DA) also promotes its cultivation in the country. "Malunggay can save lives, increase incomes, generate millions of jobs, utilize vast tracts of idle agricultural lands, make the Philippines globally competitive, impact local and international market, and help attain socio-economic equity," says Alicia Ilaga, director of the department's biotechnology programme.

Nutritionists claim that 100 grams of malunggay leaves yield 75 calories of energy (higher than ampalaya, squash, tomatoes, or carrots); 5.9 grams of protein (higher than cauliflower, lettuce or mustard); 12.8 grams carbohydrate (higher than okra, papaya, or watermelon); 353 milligrams of calcium (higher than gabi leaves, mung beans, squash, and camote tops); 3.7 milligrams niacin (higher than other vegetables analyzed). And for thiamin, phosphorus, and ascorbic acid, malunggay is at the top of the list.

In addition, nutritionists affirm that 200 grams of malunggay leaves would give a nutritive value roughly equivalent to four eggs and two glasses of milk. Its iron compound prevents deficiency of red blood cells known as anaemia. And being a very rich source of calcium, it aids in maintaining healthy bones and teeth.

Malunggay is also rich in vitamin A (higher than red and green mung beans, radish, or eggplant), thus helping prevent xerophthalmia, a disease of the eye. Adults are urged to eat malunggay leaves as its vitamin C content is higher than those of ampalaya leaves. Vitamin C may protect against declining mental ability and stroke. In studies with elderly people, researchers found that low vitamin C levels contributed to slower reasoning skills, which was a strong factor in their dying from stroke.

Mother's friend

Filipino women consider malunggay as ally in nurturing babies. In fact, they dubbed malunggay as their "best friend." For lactating women, malunggay aids in the production of vitamin-rich milk for the newly-born baby. The calcium content of malunggay, nutritionists claim, is four times those found in milk. "Due to its high vitamins A, C, and E, which are very potent antioxidants, malunggay is a very good quencher of unstable free radicals that can react with and damage molecules that cause aging," says FNRI's Dr. Lydia M. Marero. "Antioxidants reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. They also prevent the onset of various chronic diseases like arthritis, cancer, and heart and kidney diseases."

Malunggay (Moringa) seeds
Malunggay (Moringa) seeds
Malunggay (Moringa) seeds. Photo © Henrylito Tacio
In rural areas, Filipinos without good source of water can rely on malunggay to purify the water they are drinking. "The crushed moringa seeds can clear very turbid water," said Dr. John Sutherland, of Leicester University's Department of Environmental Technology.

By using malunggay seeds, people can get away without using chemicals like aluminum sulphate, which is expensive and poses risks to people and the environment. The seed powder can remove between 90 and 99 per cent of bacteria in water.

The oil extracted from matured malunggay seeds is a high value oil that can be used as cooking oil, industrial oil, and ingredient for cosmetics, bath soaps and shampoos, perfume, shortening and lubricants, among others.

Henrylito Tacio is People & the Planet contributing editor in East Asia