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‘Malunggay’: The country’s vegetable icon

Not too many Filipinos know it but the nutritious malunggay has joined the formidable list of country’s icon that included the Philippine Eagle, carabao, bangus, narra, sampaguita, mango, anahaw and jeepney.

Although not mentioned in the popular “Bahay-Kubo” song, malunggay was named as national vegetable by the House of Representatives last year.  House Bill 2071 also designated November as the “National Malunggay Month.”

It was Pangasinan fourth District Rep. Gina de Venecia, an Ilocana who grew up eating the vegetable several times a week, who authored the bill.

In her bill, she cited the economic, nutritional and medicinal benefits of malunggay.  “For the past years, malunggay in the Philippines has been considered as a backyard tree. Now, we can say that malunggay can save lives, increase incomes, generate millions of jobs, utilize vast tracts of agricultural lands, make the Philippines globally competitive, impact local and international market and help attain socioeconomic equity,” she said.

“Malunggay is one of the important plants that deserve national and international promotion due to the many biomedical endowment and numerous socioeconomic benefits that can be derived from it,” she added.

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 poor 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 Sr., 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.”

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 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 its 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 slower reasoning skills, which was a strong factor in their dying from stroke.

Filipino women consider malunggay as 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 Department of Agriculture 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 priority project.

In Bicol the BAR-funded program has found 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 malunngay tea. The 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 said. 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, malunggay can be used as such.  After all, the malunggay leaves are good for curing headache, bleeding from a shallow cut, and can be used as 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,” said 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 rural areas, Filipinos without 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, people can get away from using chemicals like aluminum sulphate, which is expensive and poses risks to people and the environment. The seed powder can remove between 90 percent 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 and ingredient for cosmetics, bath soaps and shampoos, perfume, shortening and lubricants, among others.

Image credits: WWW.PIXABAY.COM

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