The Drumstick Tree

A Natural Multi-Vitamin

Which tree grows quickly, provides tasty and nutritious food, is both resilient and common in tropical areas, and can even purify water—but has been overlooked by modern medicine?

The Moringa or “drumstick” tree (moringa oleifera) “is an all-natural, inexpensive and accessible multi-vitamin,” said Lowell Fuglie, West Africa representative of Church World Service. The tree’s leaves contain high amounts of Vitamin A (four times more than carrots), Vitamin C (seven times more than oranges), protein (twice that of milk), calcium (four times more than milk) and potassium (triple the amount in bananas).

Although Moringa leaf powder is commonly used to make a sauce in Senegal, and has many uses in India’s natural ayurvedic medicine, most health professionals and nutritionists are unaware that the young seed pods and seeds (which taste like asparagus), and flowers (which taste like mushrooms) can also be eaten.

“We were all trained in the classic solutions for treating malnutrition,” says Amadou Ba, director of a Senegalese village health post, “and those involve whole milk powder, sugar, vegetable oil, sometimes peanut butter. But these ingredients are expensive and the recovery of malnourished infants can take months. Now we have replaced this with Moringa. We start seeing improvements within 10 days.”

Because many humanitarian organizations are still unaware of the tree, Fuglie has written a book to educate other groups about Moringa. He can foresee a time when Moringa becomes the next nutritional craze among Westerners. “If such a market could be developed, production in the tropics could rapidly expand to take advantage of it,” he said.

Moringa’s other miraculous quality—its ability to purify water—has been used by households for centuries. But it has only recently been tested commercially. Powdered Moringa seeds, when added to murky, bacteria-laden water, act as a coagulant, binding to the bacteria and silt and falling to the bottom of the vessel. The clean water can then be poured out. Geoff Folkard at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom tested the use of Moringa to purify water on a commercial scale in Thyolo, Malawi, and found it accomplished as much as the chemical coagulants normally used, and at a fraction of the cost.

Is Moringa now being used to treat water commercially? Not yet, says Folkard. “People are enthusiastic about the potential of Moringa, but water utilities are reluctant to change,” he says. Folkard adds, however, that commercial extraction of Moringa protein is now beginning.