“Would you like a miracle seed?” my Jamaican friend Carey asked me while we were cruising through the bright and busy streets of Kingston. We were on our way to the Bob Marley Museum, which had been a dream of mine ever since I was a reggae-obsessed teenager blasting “Exodus” from the busted speakers of my 1989 Volvo sedan.
“A miracle seed?” I asked him with curiosity. “What’s that?”
Because my mind was on all things Marley, I assumed he was referring to some type of mysterious marijuana strain that hadn’t yet made its way to the United States. But I was wrong.
“Moringa!” he replied. “You haven’t heard of moringa?” I shook my head no.
“Ahh, moringa is the miracle plant, the plant of life. We Jamaicans live on moringa.”
“Ahh, moringa is the miracle plant, the plant of life. We Jamaicans live on moringa,” he replied with a knowing grin. Moringa, he said, is a highly nutritious green plant that grows leaves and pods with seeds and flowers, and every part of it can be eaten. He then proceeded to place two little brown moringa pods in the palm of my hand and instructed me to crack each one open with my teeth, eat the seed inside, and then take a swig of water. “The water will taste sweet like candy!” he said.
I’d like to say I was at least somewhat hesitant to eat two random seeds I knew nothing about except that they allegedly turn water into candy. But, nope, cautious I am not, and I wasted no time getting into that moringa. To be honest, it tasted bizarre, powdery almost, like I’d just stuffed a bunch of chalk into my mouth. But it did make the water taste sweet, so I popped a couple more. And then some more after that.
Fast forward a year, and U.S. residents are leaning into the health benefits of moringa now, too—the “miracle plant” has officially made its way stateside. Since that trip to Jamaica last year, I’ve seen moringa in the tea aisle at Whole Foods, on the juice menu at Pressed Juicery, and on my Instagram feed, smack dab in the middle of one of those influencer smoothie photos with the strategically placed Ray Bans chilling on the table just so. The wellness website Well + Good even dubbed moringa a wellness trend of 2018 at the beginning of this year.
On the one hand, the rise of moringa isn’t that surprising. It tastes pretty good, as long as you don’t eat the seeds raw like I did (I’m not sure how Carey does it, really). When you mix the seeds with other foods (which you should), they add sweetness, and when you add the powder (which is just crushed-up dried leaves) to smoothies, the end result tastes extra leafy.
Then there’s the wellness factor. In the past decade or so, scientists have started to study the health benefits of moringa—although it’s important to note that the scientific research is still in the early stages. “Based on preliminary research and empirical evidence, moringa does seem to have a wide range of nutritional, therapeutic, and disease-prevention virtues, from antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiulcer, antimicrobial, and antitumor/anticancer benefits, and so on,” says Dara Alegbeleye, a food and agriculture scientist and PhD candidate who studies moringa in Nigeria.
Still, the question remains: Why the mainstream moringa mania now? “It’s a confluence of trends,” explains Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli, a company launched in 2014 that sells moringa products to the U.S. market. “What we’ve found is that Americans are more interested than ever in incorporating nutritious greens into their diets, and at the same time, the research about how moringa has anti-inflammatory benefits is new—so people are starting to pay attention.”
As with all health “trends” we poach from other parts of the world—take turmeric milk, for instance—it’s important to know the backstory as well as the benefits. While moringa may be new to us in the United States (i.e., me, just last year), it’s been used in many places around the globe for ages. “People all over the world have already been eating this, and we’re just late to the party,” confirms Danielle Flood, communications specialist for ECHO, an agricultural support agency that’s been growing and working with moringa since 1981.
Thought to have originated in India, the moringa tree has 13 different species—the most common of which is the Moringa oleifera—and each species looks distinctive, from large trees to tiny plants. Historically, it’s been considered a hunger crop to help fight malnutrition, which makes sense: It can grow year-round in poor soil with very little water and has all of those health benefits, too. Curtis says she got the idea for her company when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa, and there wasn’t much healthy food around. “I’m vegetarian, so healthy food was even harder to find, and I noticed that eating moringa gave me a lot more energy,” she says. Same for Flood’s company, ECHO: “Our CEO traveled to Haiti, where he met people at an orphanage who told him that they eat the tree for nutrition. He did research on it from there and started to cultivate it soon after.”
As with all health “trends” we poach from other parts of the world, it’s important to know the backstory as well as the benefits.
These days, you can find moringa all across the subtropical belt, from Africa to Southeast Asia to South and Central America and even some places in Florida and Hawaii—basically most places that don’t get too cold. But the countries with the biggest supplies of moringa right now are Nicaragua, India, Ghana, and the Philippines, where it’s the national vegetable, says Curtis.
And while you can certainly enjoy moringa in powdered or seed form here in the United States, it’s still best enjoyed fresh—meaning you may want to head to any of those moringa zones to try it for yourself. “You can’t get fresh moringa leaves in most places in the States, but when you travel abroad, you can get the fresh leaves at the markets, depending on where you’re going,” says Curtis. “The leaves taste like a cross between spinach and arugula. They have a very green flavor with spiciness at the end.” If you travel to the Philippines, you’ll find moringa leaves often in pesto, and in India, locals may put the fresh seed pods in some soups. Flood says she likes to throw a handful of fresh moringa leaves into her salads and stir-fries, too.
It’s worth noting that moringa has different names in different countries, although each refers to the same green plant. Several to know: In India, it’s called “the drumstick tree” (murunga). In Senegal, it’s called “mother’s milk.” In the Philippines, it’s known as malunggay; in China, lat mok; in Taiwan, la mu; in Indonesia, kalor; in Vietnam, chùm ngây; and in Mexico, flor de jacinto. Other general English nicknames for it are the “tree of life,” the “vitamin tree,” the “horseradish tree” (because you can make horseradish from the roots), and the “never die tree.”
In Nicaragua, moringa doesn’t have a cute nickname but does have a very large presence. I stayed on a permaculture farm that was filled with loads of moringa, and while I didn’t pop a bunch of pellets as I did in Jamaica, I did eat my fair share of fresh moringa leaves. They were a whole lot tastier than the raw seeds—spicy, as Curtis said—but that’s not the point. Eating the miracle plant in its natural habitat, instead of some trendy café in Brooklyn, was a simple pleasure. On that trip, it was miracle enough for me.