But the leafy green may have finally met its match with moringa – a scrappy tree that grows around the equator and is just as nutrient dense and versatile as kale and is slowly but steadily infiltrating a variety of food and beverage categories.
Simply meeting kale punch for punch on nutrition and availability, however, likely isn’t enough for moringa to knock kale out of its top superfood status based on the failed attempts of other nutrient dense veggies to overthrow kale.
But what gives moringa an edge over kale and the other ingredients that have tried to take its crown is its back story as a superfood with superpowers to save third-worlds … or at least create a path for a stable, sustainable income for workers in villages with few other options to a living wage.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA, get the full scoop on Moringa from Kuli Kuli and ME Moringa for Life – two young companies that are importing the ingredient to the US and using it as the star ingredient in a variety of products.
Lisa Curtis, who founded Kuli Kuli, explains she first was attracted to moringa for the nutritional benefits that give it superfood status.
“Moringa is a leafy green tree and it is actually the leaves that are the most nutrient rich part. You don’t often think of eating tree leaves, but it provides a complete plant protein. So, all of your essential amino acids, a lot of calcium, iron and vitamins. It is also very high in antioxidants,” she said.
Curtis added that moringa is so packed with nutrients that many cultures around the world use it for a number of medicinal purposes, which is actually how she was introduced to the plant.
“I started working with it as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, West Africa. So, I am a vegetarian and had been living off of beans, rice and millet and starting to feel like I wasn’t getting enough nutrients. Particularly protein and iron. So, a couple of people I was working with in my village pulled some moringa leaves off the tree, then mixed it in with a peanut snack that they call kuli kuli, gave it to me and I started eating and was like, ‘Wow! This is great. This makes me feel better. What is this stuff?’ So, I did a little research and thought this plant is amazing. This should be everywhere,” she said.
Curtis initially worked with the women in her village to grow and use more moringa locally, but when her stint in the Peace Corps ended she wanted to continue her work with the women of her village and the plant, so she decided to introduce moringa to the US.
At the time a few other small players were selling moringa in the US on a small scale and primarily as powder. But Curtis knew that if Americans were going to embrace it, the ingredient needed to be in food that was convenient.
Together with her co-founder she created snack bars, followed by a loose powder that consumers can add to smoothie and stir fry and most recently a line of energy shots.
Could a social mission help moringa rise above kale?
In the short time since Kuli Kuli launched, several new companies and smaller brands offering moringa-based products have started to emerge – a trend that Curtis says is great and does not intimidate her because her company also has a strong social mission, which she believes resonates well with American consumers.
And it is this element that could be the secret to kale’s undoing.
“One of the things that makes us different is … we have a social impact. We partner with women co-ops, small farmers around the world to improve nutrition there and sell it here. So, it is a really amazing product,” she said. “We have actively partnered with our farmers to help them grow more trees, expand their operation, we have offered some zero interest loans to get other certifications,” such as organic and Fair Trade.
Curtis also recently expanded her mission – and her supply chain with a high profile partnership with the Clinton Foundation and Whole Foods Market to help reforest Haiti with moringa trees that can also provide a sustainable livelihood through crop sales.
ME Moringa for Life focuses on quality
Another company that is proudly bringing high quality moringa to the US and helping to employ Kenyans is ME Moringa for Life.
Company President Louis Antoniou explained how the company’s strict quality control standards help set its product apart from the competition. He notes that his moringa is grown hours away from any source of pollution, and after harvest it is refined in a “laboratory level environments” with controlled humidity, temperature and contamination.
“It is a very sophisticated plantation,” he said.
The other thing that sets ME’s moringa products apart from the competitors is the brightly colored, high-end packaging, as well as its full line-up of products that together sell an entire lifestyle.
For example, Antoniou explains that the company’s tea blends each serve a specific purpose and one consumer might have one blend before exercising, another post-workout and another during a massage or relaxation.
The company also sells moringa in spice blends and is in the process of finalizing protein powders featuring the ingredient.
Curtis also promises more innovation from Kuli Kuli in the fall and says that the company’s new water soluble version of moringa can take it into the functional beverage space in a new way.
Is innovation a harbinger for growth?
The creative investment by both of these brands is a sign they are confident that the demand for moringa will continue to grow.
Curtis compared moringa to where quinoa was 10 years ago or acai eight years ago, while Antoniou says moringa is akin to green tea in the US before consumers became educated about the value proposition it offers.
With that in mind, Curtis quipped, “Kale is on its way out, and moringa is on its way in!”