When a supplement appears to come out of nowhere and is suddenly promoted in the media, as on the Dr. Oz Show, as a superfood, perhaps one should pause and ask, is this hype? At least one company is hoping for the former, as Paul Taitt, VP of sales and marketing for Moringa Sources, which makes products that contain Moringa oleifera, noted, “we are very excited about the Dr Oz show, as we are hoping that it will shine a light on this amazing superfood and really cause an explosion in demand.”
Superfoods are big business
Many foods are labeled as “superfoods,” including blueberries, acai berries, chia seeds, goji berries, and green tea, among others, depending on which expert you believe and which list you consult. But there are several important factors consumers should consider when they hear the words “superfood.”
One, is there scientific evidence to back up the claims, and have the studies been conducted in people? If Superfood X kills cancer cells in a petri dish and Superfood Y helps fruit flies live longer, yet there are no relevant studies to show their effects in humans, keep that in mind when you are thinking about buying the food or supplement.
Two, who stands to gain from the sudden hype about a so-called superfood? Some superfoods are readily available and reasonably priced; for example, you don’t need to look far to find blueberries and other similar berries. However, other food products touted as superfoods are specialty items, and are available only from a few supplement makers.
Take Moringa oleifera, for example. M. oleifera, also known as the horseradish tree, drumstick tree, and various other names, is a tree native to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, but which is widely cultivated throughout Africa, tropical Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands. All parts of the tree are edible and have been used for centuries to meet medicinal and dietary needs by people living in those areas.
Moringa oleifera is especially important in developing nations where undernourishment is a problem, because the leaves are rich in vitamin A, calcium, iron (three times more iron than spinach, according to the Dr. Oz Show), vitamin C, potassium, and protein. Therefore as a food, moringa leaves, as well as the fruit, nuts, seeds, and roots, are valued in countries where the tree is grown for its nutritional value.
Although there are in vitro (e.g., laboratory studies using cells) and animal studies of M. oleifera, the few human trials had not been randomized or double-blind and so not reliable. Overall, the studies performed thus far in the lab, animals, and people have suggested M. oleifera has anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antioxidant potential, among other possible health benefits.
For example, M. oleifera showed anticancer effects in ovarian cancer cells, and several studies suggested the plant had antioxidant, antiatherosclerotic, and lipid-lowering action that might help prevent cardiovascular disease.
A study in rats indicated M. oleifera may reduce blood glucose levels, which suggests benefits for people with diabetes. In a guinea pig model of asthma, a seed extract of Morienga reduced airway inflammation, suggesting it might help as an asthma treatment.
A new review in Frontiers in Pharmacology explains that “the enthusiasm for the health benefits of M. oleifera is in dire contrast with the scarcity of strong experimental and clinical evidence supporting them.” Commenting on the possible role of M. oleifera in diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the authors note that “before M. oleifera leaf formulations can be recommended as medication in the prevention or treatment of diabetes and CVD, it is necessary that the scientific basis of their efficacy, the therapeutic modalities of their administration and their possible side effects be more rigorously determined.”
As for Dr. Oz, during his show he recommended using Moringa oleifera supplement powder, 400 mg per day, or drinking the tea to help boost energy levels. Given the impressive nutrition profile of the plant, this suggestion may be helpful, but is Moringa oleifera a superfood, or is that just hype, and could you get just as much nutritional benefit from more readily available foods?
Chumark P et al. The in vitro and ex vivo antioxidant properties, hypolipidaemic and antiatherosclerotic activities of water extract of Moringa oleifera Lam. leaves. J Ethnopharmacol 2008 Mar 28; 116(3): 439-46
Jaiswal D et al. Effect of Moringa oleifera Lam. leaves aqueous extract therapy on hyperglycemic rats. J Ethnopharmacol 2009 Jun 25; 123(3): 392-96
Kalkunte S et al. Benzyl isothiocyanate (BITC) induces apoptosis in ovarian cancer cells in vitro. J Exp Ther Oncol 2006; 5(4): 287-300
Mahajan SG et al. Inhibitory effect ofn-butanol fraction of Moringa oleifera Lam. seeds on ovalbumin-induced airway inflammation in a guinea pig model of asthma. Int J Toxicol 2009 Nov-Dec; 28(6): 519-27
Mbikay M. Therapeutic potential of Moringa oleifera leaves in chronic hyperglycemia and dyslipidemia: a review. Front Pharmacol 2012 Mar; 3:24
Sreelatha S, Padma PR. Protective mechanisms of Moringa oleifera against CCI(4)-induced oxidative stress in precision-cut liver slices. Forsch Komplementmed 2010; 17(4): 189-94
Image: Wikimedia Commons