Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Unknowingly, the Third World War has already started. But most people hardly notice the battle as the enemy is stealthy creeping individuals, mostly children from less developed countries. The unseen adversary is malnutrition.
The solution to the problem of hunger and malnutrition lies in the production of Moringa oleifera, more popularly known as malunggay. The “miracle vegetable,” as some scientists called it, has been promoted by no less than the World Health Organization (WHO) as a low-cost health enhancer in developing countries around the globe. The “natural nutrition for the tropics” is how the Florida-based Education Concerns for Hunger Organization described malunggay.
“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.”
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 must be recalled that during the administration of Ferdinand E. Marcos, there was a craze about malunggay as a solution to the malnutrition problem in the countryside. Marcos himself was a malunggay addict, consuming soup littered with green leaves in every meal in addition to the legendary saluyot and labong (bamboo shoots) as his main fare.
Malunggay 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 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.”
As malunggay is an excellent source of nutrition and a natural energy booster, the Department of Agriculture (DA) promotes its massive 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,” said Alicia Ilaga when she was the director of the DA’s biotechnology program.
Nutritionists aver that 100 grams of malunggay leaves yield the following: 75 calories of energy (higher than ampalaya, squash, tomatoes, or carrots), 5.9 grams protein (higher than cauliflower, lettuce, or mustard), 12.8 grams of carbohydrate (higher than okra, papaya, or watermelon), 353 milligrams 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 anemia. 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 their 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 shower reasoning skills, which was a strong factor in their death from stroke.
Filipino women consider malunggay as an 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.
Because malunggay is a very nutritious plant, the DA urges farmers to increase its production so they could have a weapon against hunger and malnutrition, especially in the rural areas. The department’s Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) has included malunggay in its indigenous plants for health and wellness program and identified the development of malunggay as a priority project.
In Bicol, the BAR-funded has found new ways to integrate malunggay in various preparations as well as package it into different product lines. These include malunggay tea, instant juice, and malunggay powder.
Malunggay leaves are separated from the stalks and are either oven-dried or sun-dried. The dried leaves become malunggay tea. They pounded dried leaves are turned into malunggay powder which can be mixed into common Filipino delicacies such as soups, sauces, instant noodles, cookies, and chocolates as an added ingredient.
“In this way, Filipino children who are not very fond of vegetables get to eat essential nutrients present in malunggay without knowing it,” the Bicol researchers say. The newly developed products have shelf lives of six months at the most, depending on the packaging materials used.
If “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” in the United States, it’s malunggay here in the Philippines. After all, the malunggay leaves are good for curing headache, bleeding from a shallow cut and can be used as an anti-inflammatory or cure for gastric ulcers and diarrhea.
“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.”
In Cebu, a local daily reported that a Japanese businessman has discovered the medicinal value of the malunggay and has developed a tea that he claims can cure many human diseases. The tea is the product of 30 years of research, which began after reading a passage in the Bible about a “tree that cures all diseases.”
In rural areas, Filipinos without a 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 from using chemicals like aluminum sulfate, which is expensive and poses risks to people and the environment. The seed powder can remove between 90 and 99 percent 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, an ingredient for cosmetics, bath soaps and shampoos, perfume, shortening, and lubricants, among others.
But despite its legendary potentials, malunggay is still relatively unknown. “The sale of all forms of vitamins, minerals, and health supplements is a big business,” points out an American company that promotes and sells malunggay products in capsules. “If you are a company selling hundreds of nutritional products, why would you sell a product that will wipe out all your other products? This is true for the pharmaceutical industries as well. These industries would rather that the general public remains ignorant about the moringa.”