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MEXICO: Food from Trees to Fight Malnutrition

MEXICO CITY, Sep 29 2011 (IPS) - The exceptionally nutritious moringa tree, native to the foothills of the Himalayas and cultivated in several Latin American countries, could help fight malnutrition in this region.

The moringa tree (Moringa oleifera), of the Moringaceae family, also known as the drumstrick or horseradish tree, is fast-growing, does well in semi-arid soil and requires little water. Its seed pods and leaves provide significant amounts of protein, vitamins and potassium, and the seeds can also be used to purify water.

“It is not being put to the best use. There is a mismatch between what this plant can provide and how it is being used. It is a source of food, but is being used as a medicine,” Mark Olson, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Biology, told IPS.

Originally introduced as an ornamental tree, the seed pods or fruit can be eaten raw, while crushed seeds yield high quality oil rich in oleic acid. In fact, nearly every part of the tree – including the roots, flowers, leaves, pods and seeds – can be used for food or have other beneficial properties.

There are 13 related species of moringa trees.

Although various parts of the moringa have been used as food for decades in African countries, and in spite of its nutritional advantages, moringa is marketed in Latin America and Europe mainly as capsules, nutritional supplements and beverages.

“This is a new and promising development, because we have been familiar with moringa cultivation for some years now but the research is very recent. We are trying to encourage its use as a food,” Leopoldo Martínez, a moringa grower who heads the Mexican Moringa Council (CMM), founded in December 2010, told IPS.

The CMM has 75 members, most of whom are growers and sellers of moringa products. Some 500,000 moringa trees have been planted, from the northwestern state of Sonora to Chiapas state in the south.

The seeds germinate in two weeks and seedlings are ready for transplanting in eight or nine weeks. The trees can grow to a height of four metres in the first year.

In a 2010 study titled “Evaluación y formulación de pan enriquecido con hojas de moringa” (Evaluation and formulation of bread enriched with moringa leaves), six scientists at the Centre for Research on Food and Development (CIAD), the Valle del Yaqui Technology Institute and the University of Sonora, all state institutions, developed two homemade bread recipes containing moringa leaf powder.

The first, containing one percent moringa leaf powder, had a protein content of 9.4 percent and 20.2 percent dietary fibre. The second, with 0.5 percent leaf powder, had 8.7 percent protein and 10.4 percent fibre.

The cost of a 15 g serving of this bread, assuming it was baked on a commercial scale, was calculated at 24 cents of a dollar, “an affordable price for most of the rural and urban population,” the study says.

Between 2008 and 2010 the Fundación Produce Sinaloa, an independent agricultural research foundation run by farmers, and the University of Sinaloa carried out a project titled “Producción y validación de Moringa oleifera como alternativa forrajera para ovinos en el centro de Sinaloa” (Production and validation of Moringa oleifera as an alternative fodder for sheep in central Sinaloa), which reported fresh forage yields between 80 and 300 tonnes per hectare.

The estimated yield of moringa seeds is 2,500 kg per hectare, enough to produce 1,478 litres of oil or 1,419 litres of biodiesel.

“Anyone interested in commercialising maringo products should sit down and calculate how much protein and vitamins are needed, and really think through the benefits offered, and design the product accordingly. And they must make products people will want to eat. There is no reliable information about digestibility, nutritional value or antioxidants,” said Olson.

The UNAM scientist has been doing research on moringa since the mid-1990s, and is now studying the relationship between its genetic variation worldwide and its attributes. Together with colleagues in the United States and Pakistan he will shortly be publishing a paper on the nutritional values of the species in the Revista Mexicana de Biodiversidad (Mexican Journal of Biodiversity).

One kilo of good quality moringa leaves sells for up to 74 dollars on the Mexican market, making it profitable for growers. Local traditions of consuming large quantities of herbs as nutritional supplements are also an advantage.

“Many producers wonder why they should process the leaves if there is no market. Moringa is not included in the national revenue-producing crop inventory, and this blocks access to public financing,” Martínez said.

The CMM has forged links with several universities to carry out research on the uses of moringa as food and forage.

The goal for 2011 is to obtain authorisation from the Federal Commission for Protection Against Health Risks (COFEPRIS) for an herbal medicine based on moringa that could guide producers “to meet standards and sell their products at better prices,” according to Martínez.

Mexico has exported small quantities to the United States, Panama and Spain. Meanwhile, moringa production is being initiated in countries like Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay and Argentina.

“There is tremendous variation between products on the domestic market because of processing differences. There is plenty of room for refining these products,” said Olson, who has studied moringa varieties in places like Cuba, Morocco and Madagascar.

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  • Mr Grove

    Mr. Olson and Mr. Martinez,please contact me at your convenience…my name is Mr. Grove…thank you