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Malunggay : The Miracle Vegetable

“Malunggay” in the Philippines, “Sajina” in the Indian Subcontinent, and “Moringa” in English, it is a popular tree. Many Asians use the leaves of Malunggay (Sajina) like spinach and also the fruit it produces as a vegetable, like asparagus. It only used to be known as a vegetable for lactating mothers. But new scientific studies say that malunggay’s medicinal and market possibilities.

Touted by scientists as a “miracle vegetable,” malunggay has been promoted by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the past 20 years as a low-cost health enhancer in poor countries around the globe.

Malunggay trees are generally grown in the backyards. The small, oval, dark-green leaves are famous vegetable ingredient in soup, fish and chicken dishes. Scientifically, called ‘Moringa oelifera.’ this vegetable, despite its legendary potentials, is still relatively unknown.

“The sale of all forms of vitamins, minerals, and health supplements is a big business,” points out Moringa Zinga, 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 leaves.”

According to the Biotechnology Program Office of the Department of Agriculture, the malunggay has been found by biochemists and molecular anthropologists to be rich in vitamins C and A, iron, and high density lipoprotein or good cholesterol.

Due to its high calcium content (four times the calcium in milk), lactating mothers in the Philippines are often advised to consume malunggay leaves to produce more milk for their babies. The young malunggay leaves are being boiled and drink as tea.

Malunggay leaves are loaded with nutrients. Gram for gram, malunggay leaves also contain two times the protein in milk. Likewise, it contains three times the potassium in bananas and four times the vitamin A in carrots.

Health nutritionists claim that an ounce of malunggay has the same Vitamin C content as seven oranges. An important function of vitamin C not known to many is its being an antioxidant. In fact, it has been recognized and accepted by the US Food and Drug Administration as one of the four dietary antioxidants, the others being vitamin E, beta-carotene and selenium. (A dietary oxidant is a substance in food that significantly decreases the adverse effects of harmful chemicals).

There are more health benefits. Vivencio Mamaril, of the Bureau of Plant Industry, told a national daily that in India, malunggay is used in treating various ailments. A 2001 study in India has found that the fresh root of the young tree can be used to treat fever. Asthmatics are advised to drink the infusion from the roots of the plant.

Tender malunggay leaves also reduce phlegm and are administered internally for scurvy and catarrhal conditions, while the flowers are used to heal inflammation of the tendons and abscesses. Unripe pods of malunggay are also reported to prevent intestinal worms, while the fruit also prevents eye disorders.

Other studies have shown that eating malunggay fruits can lead to higher semen count. This is good news for men who are having problems in siring children. They can now count on the malunggay to cork its magic on them.

Because of its nutritional content, malunggay strengthens the immune system, restores skin condition, controls blood pressure, re.ieves headaches and migraines, manages the sugar level thereby preventing diabetes, reduces inflammations and arthritis pains, restricts the growth of tumors, and heals ulcers. This information comes from Dr. Kumar Pati, an Indian doctor who is an expert in natural medicine.

The “next big thing” in Philippine agriculture. That is how the agriculture department considers malunggay. 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 socioeconomic equity,” explained Alice Ilaga, director of the DA’s Biotechnology Program.

Besides being sold in the public market as a vegetable, is there really a market for malunggay products? “The Philippines is currently in the midst of developing the local market for malunggay and its products,” said a statement released by Biotechnology Program, which aggressively aims to develop the agribusiness potentials of various crops as part of the government’s poverty-alleviation program. “Despite being behind other countries such as India and Nicaragua, the Philippines’ malunggay industry is on its way to becoming a global competitor.”

In a press statement, Ilaga reported that the Nutrition Center of the Philippines is setting its sights on fortifying different types of food. “Given its nutritional value, it can be utilized in fortifying sauces, juices, milk, bread, and most importantly, instant noodles,” Ilaga says.

According to Ilaga, a multinational food company reportedly has expressed keen interest in putting up a processing plant in the Philippines for this purpose. “A noodle company is also eyeing malunggay for bio-fortification of noodles as part of its commitment to support the program to fight malnutrition, which is prevalent in the countryside,” she added.

The seeds of malunggay contain 40% oil, which is considered excellent massage oil. As part of its program to promote biotechnology, the agriculture department has strategically positioned itself for the commercial planting of seeds for malunggay oil production.

“The Philippines can penetrate the international market in producing malunggay oil from its seeds using advance technology to extract oil from enzymes,” Ilaga disclosed.

One local company that is leading in malunggay production is SECURA International. After entering into malunggay production for more than a year, it expects a bright future for the malunggay industry.

In an interview with a news dispatch, SECURA president Danny Manayaga admits that for the country to really take advantage of the market, it should first ensure that there is enough supply to support it. “‘The market is developing, but up to now, we still don’t know the extent of this market because we have not yet defined our capacity to produce malunggay,” he disclosed.

“We are involved with contract growers from different towns all over the country such as Valencia in Negros Oriental, Masinloc and Botolan in Zambales, Alaminos and Infanta in Pangasinan, and Bamban in Tarlac, which accounts for 150 hectares of our malunggay supply for our current market but it is not enough to sustain the demands for other products such as moringa oil,” Manayaga said.

SECURA needs at least 20,000 hectares to be able to support the available market for malunggay products. Currently, it is involved in processing dehydrated malunggay leaves to produce tea and as an additive to other medicinal plants to produce herbal tea. “This is the only active market that is running for malunggay now,” Manayaga said.

Unknown to many Filipinos, malunggay has the ability to purify water. “The crushed moringa seeds can clear very turbid water,” said Dr. John Sutherland, of Leicester University’s Department of Environmental Technology. He added that powdered malunggay seeds are appropriate for water purification in rural areas of tropical countries.

Planting malunggay trees can also help stabilize soil and contribute to fight against deforestation. The malunggay tree is highly resistant to drought and needs little care. It is fast-growing and lives for average of 50 years. Each tree can produce approximately 10,000 seeds a year. It also makes an excellent fuel and fertilizer.

A tropical species, malunggay can tolerate temperatures up to 48 degrees Centigrade, but 15 degrees to 35 degrees Centigrade is considered best. It grows in areas with annual rainfall of 760 to 2250 millimeters.

Is planting malunggay profitable? According to Ilaga, for a hectare of malunggay, the estimated net income per year is P150,000.