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Moringa (“Marum”)

Kasma Loha-unchit, July 5th, 2010

Moringa (Marum): a Nutritious Plant with Amazing Healing Powers

What is moringa oil and what is it used for?

Moringa Oil

Bottle of moringa oil

A bottle of moringa (marum in Thai) oil accidentally came into my possession last November, a week after I arrived in Thailand for my annual winter stay. My elderly mother and I were shopping at Seri Center in the outskirts of Bangkok. We walked by a small health products shop. I stopped in to buy herbal shampoo and hair conditioner.

Remembering Mother’s complaint of itchiness, I asked the proprietor if he had anything that might help, pointing to skin lesions on her legs and face from all the scratching. He took a close look and said she had a fungal infection, then pulled out a small bottle of “marum” oil from a cabinet, extolling its miraculous healing powers on all kinds of skin problems.

Marum? Isn’t that a vegetable used in gkaeng som (sour tamarind curry) or to accompany nahm prik (spicy chilli sauces with fermented shrimp paste)?”

Moringa Plant

Moringa pods, or drumsticks

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

“That’s right. The oil is from the seeds. Haven’t you heard that all parts of the plant have exceptional nutritional value and medicinal properties? Marum has become very popular among the health-conscious.” He handed me an information sheet with a long list of conditions it’s capable of treating, including modern day ailments as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer, and raving testimonials from people who’d used it with amazing results. “It’s become the best selling item I carry and I often run out. It’s hard to keep enough in stock since the Japanese have been buying up massive quantities to use in their cosmetics. They’ve discovered that marum oil has very beneficial qualities to keep skin healthy and reverse damage from detrimental environmental conditions.”

“So,” I thought to myself, “this is the new “in” thing since I was here last year.” Preferring natural remedies based on age-old herbal wisdom to modern chemical-based medicines, I was curious to give this new oil a try. It wasn’t exactly cheap: 300 baht for a tiny 30 ml. bottle, quite expensive in Thai terms.

Moringa Leaves

Moringa leaves

But back to the bottle of oil I bought for my mother. She got to use it for only a couple of days before my sister, who’s her primary caregiver, decided her fungal infection was too serious to depend on an herbal remedy and took her to the hospital to see a dermatologist. Standard antibiotic medical ointments, soap and shampoo were prescribed that eventually alleviated the problem.

I would find out in the ensuing weeks and months of my stay that marum has indeed attained star status among health-conscious Thais, but whether it’s just a fad that would diminish over time remains to be seen. There’re articles about it in newspapers and magazines, including food publications complete with recipes. Books about its healing powers are widely distributed. There are marum capsule food supplements, tea and coffee made from the dried leaves, soaps made from the charred bark, herbal shampoo and hair conditioner and various ointments and salves, among a plethora of “marum” products.

Moringa Flowers

Moringa flowers

The bottle of moringa oil ended up in my hands. I gave the information sheet a more thorough read and took note that it could prevent scarring from cuts and burns and even diminish the appearance of old scar tissue. I decided to do an experiment. There’re these two dark acne scars on my face from my youth, one on either side just under the eyes. Each morning and evening, I would dab the two dark spots with a drop of the oil, rubbing the excess around the corner of the eyes. I did this on and off during the three months I was in Thailand, mostly off when leading my tours kept me busy.

The bottle of moringa oil returned with me to California in mid-February. The two dark spots on my face were still there, so I decided to continue using it. Now that my daily routine wasn’t disrupted by checking in and out of hotels and being cramped for space staying in-between the tours at my sister’s small townhouse, I could really give this oil a chance by using it daily without interruption. Each morning and evening, I would dab a single drop on the two small spots and rub the remainder around the corner of my eyes. It became a routine that soon was automatic and out of mind.

Moringa Seeds

Winged moringa seeds

In mid-March, one of my advanced cooking students whom I hadn’t seen for at least a year surprised me by saying that I looked different. She insisted I looked years younger and my complexion had changed. She started earnestly questioning whether there had been major stress-reduction changes in my life, whether I was happier for some unexplained reason, whether I’d been doing anything differently the past year, such as using a new moisturizer on my face, etc., etc., etc. I was puzzled by her remarks. I hadn’t done anything differently in my life, hadn’t noticed anything different in the way I look and couldn’t think of anything that could have made a difference, during the busy hours of conducting the cooking class. I thought maybe it was the tan I brought back with me from Thailand, or maybe the color of the top I was wearing that complimented my complexion especially well, or maybe she’s just being sweet and making a compliment to make me feel good.

That night after I washed my face, I automatically reached for the moringa oil. Suddenly it dawned on me that using the oil was what I had been doing differently lately. I took a closer look in the mirror. “The two dark spots are still there but my skin does look smoother and more supple,” I said to myself. “Wait a minute! The crow’s feet on the side of my eyes, they’re gone!” Now that’s a miracle!

So What Is Moringa?

Books About Moringa

Books about moringa

My curiosity led me to do a little research to learn more about moringa. To my amazement, there’s a plethora of information about this miracle plant. The following is a summary of my discoveries.

Moringa oleifera is a slender, medium-size tree with drooping branches and pretty, lacy leaf fronds, native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The fast-growing and drought resistant tree is widely cultivated in India and Southeast Asia, as well as in tropical and sub-tropical areas of Africa, Central Asia and Central and South America. Known as one of the world’s most useful trees since ancient times (i.e., dating back to the Egyptian, Greek and Roman eras), most parts of the tree, from the leaves and long bean-like pods to the flowers and seeds, and to some extent, the roots and bark, are edible and exceptionally nutritious.

In addition to being a valuable source of food, moringa is a medicinal plant, which in India’s age-old Ayuvedic tradition can prevent some 300 diseases. Parts of the tree also provide materials for industrial applications, such as lubrication oil for fine machinery, water filtration and purification, tanning of hides, the production of compost fertilizer, insecticide, charcoal, rope and paper, and the manufacture of perfume, cosmetics and hair care products..

The edible green pods, commonly called “drumsticks” because of its long, straight and slender shape, give the tree its common name of “drumstick tree”. Another common name is “horseradish tree” as the root, which has a hot flavor, is sometimes used as a condiment much like horseradish, but it is NOT to be confused with true horseradish and eating the root more than sparingly is not recommended since it contains an alkaloid that can cause nerve damage.

Moringa Oil Products

Moringa oil products

In Thailand, marum is a common vegetable in the rural countryside, cooked in the traditional ways of the different regions. The young pods, leaves, and flowers are usually lightly blanched to accompany various kinds of chili sauces (nahm prik), or cooked in hot and sour curries and soups. In some northeastern provinces, a mixture of dried marum leaves and other herbs is used as a flavor enhancer. The tree is often grown as living fences around homes, providing a source of nourishment as well as materials for a variety of household uses.

A significant amount of scientific research has been conducted in many countries over the past 20 years on the nutritional and medicinal benefits of moringa, including America at a number of prestigious institutions such as the John Hopkins School of Medicine. The research confirms the leaves to be a powerhouse of nutrition, containing, ounce for ounce, seven times more vitamin C than oranges, four times more beta-carotene than carrots (precursor to vitamin A), three times more potassium than bananas, and four times more calcium and two times more protein than fresh milk. The quality of the protein is said to rival that of eggs and milk, but some studies have found that the calcium is bound up in oxalate crystals, a form not readily available to the body. The leaves also contain more iron than spinach and are high in magnesium and fiber.

Moringa Leaf Capsules

Moringa leaf capsules

The young immature green pods are also extremely nutritious, containing all the essential amino acids and many vitamins and other nutrients. The flowers, which should not be eaten raw, are rich in potassium and calcium. The seeds in mature pods yield 38 to 40 percent of a clear, sweet edible oil (called Ben oil because of the high concentration of behenic acid), that resists rancidity. Its nutritional value is said to closely resemble olive oil. Because of the amazing abundance of nutrition, moringa has been used to combat malnutrition and starvation in third-world countries.

Most parts of the moringa tree possess healing properties and are used in the traditional herbal medicine of many countries. Moringa contains powerful anti-microbial substances and its antibiotic and antiseptic properties are well documented. It is extremely rich in antioxidants that reduce damage to the body from environmental stress and help maintain heart heath. It strengthens the immune system; regulates blood pressure to prevent high blood pressure and blood sugar levels to prevent diabetes; detoxifies and protect the liver and kidneys from damage from toxins; and maintains reproductive health. It has also been used to prevent and treat tumors and different kinds of cancers, asthma, allergies, gout, bleeding gums, constipation and a host of other health problems, including inflammation (e.g. rheumatism, arthritis, joint pain), skin diseases, and disorders of the circulatory, endocrine, digestive and nervous systems.

Moreover, the oil expressed from moringa seeds is excellent as a first aid to cuts, burns, bruises, sores in the mouth, nose and ears and any fresh wounds, helping them heal without scarring while providing antiseptic protection from infection. It can be used as a massage oil to relieve fatigue in the muscles and rubbed on the head to reduce hair loss and relieve headaches. It’s also very effective on snake and insect bites to reduce swelling and itchiness and remove poisons..

Other benefits of moringa that have received much interest in recent years include anti-ageing properties. The plant contains substances that maintain vision and help slow the degeneration of cells in the vital organs, optic nerves and arteries. Some cultures believe there are special substances in the plant that nourish the brain and can prevent Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain illnesses among the elderly.

Action Plan

Moringa Tea & Pods

Moringa tea & seeds

All the valuable information about moringa’s nutritional and healing powers has motivated me to seek out moringa leaves and pods to cook and add to my diet, especially during the warmer months of the year in California when they are available in some ethnic markets. The young drumsticks, which need to be peeled before cooking, can be prepared in a similar way as green beans and are said to have a slight asparagus taste. The mature pods yield winged seeds that may be eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. The leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach and the flowers are said to taste like mushrooms.

I’ve seen the drumsticks at Bay Area farmers’ markets in past summers, so I will be looking for them. I recently found the leaves at our local Cambodian market in Oakland (Mithapheap (was Sontepheap) on International Blvd.) but I have yet to cook it as a spur-of-the-moment trip to Thailand on news of my mother’s deteriorating health took me away from my kitchen.

Being back in Thailand during a time of heightened personal interest in moringa has given me the opportunity to search out moringa products to try out. Will they surprise me with other miracles? I didn’t have to look hard. The products are everywhere and demand for them has likely increased as revealed by rising prices. I have now in my possession moringa shampoo and conditioner, moringa lip balm, moringa tea, moringa capsule food supplement, moringa soap, dried moringa seeds, two books on moringa with recipes, and a dozen more bottles of moringa oil for myself and my friends.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2010

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