A su­per spinach

Tree spinach, or chaya­mansa, is noth­ing less than a su­per­food for hu­mans as well as live­stock

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - MEGHA PRAKASH @megha_prakash

Tree spinach or chaya­mansa can be a po­ten­tial su­per food for hu­mans and live­stock

LIKE ANY five-year-old, Disha is a fussy eater. She de­tests ev­ery­thing that makes the meal whole­some, par­tic­u­larly leafy greens. Of late, her mother Shya­mali Chakma has found a way of tak­ing care of Disha’s nu­tri­tion. She sneaks a few leaves of tree spinach (Cnidosco­lus

aconi­ti­folius) into what­ever she wants to eat—be it scram­bled eggs, tho­ran (co­conut-based curry) or dal. “Three to four leaves of chaya­mansa, as it is called, are suf­fi­cient to meet her daily nu­tri­tional needs,” says Chakma, who works with Bodytree, a non-profit in Ker­ala that is try­ing to pre­serve the tra­di­tional med­i­cal prac­tices of indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and im­prove their ac­cess to health and ed­u­ca­tion.

The plant is not na­tive to In­dia and Chakma learnt about it from Vaidya Vi­jayan M R, founder of Bodytree. A few years ago while work­ing with the Kanzhi tribe in Kal­lar, Vi­jayan ob­served that most in the com­mu­nity suf­fered from nu­tri­tional anaemia. “There has been a dras­tic change in the diet of this hunter-gath­erer com­mu­nity since they have been alien­ated from forests. Now they mostly eat rice and tu­bers,” he says. The quest of his team to make the com­mu­nity nu­tri­tion-secure ended when Vi­jayan spot­ted tree spinach at a school in Auroville, Tamil Nadu.

Be­lieved to have orig­i­nated in Mexico, the plant is pop­u­lar in Mex­i­can and Cen­tral Amer­i­can cuisines. In 1952, the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture did a com­par­a­tive study of 137 leafy veg­eta­bles and found that tree spinach has the high­est amount of

beta-carotene (pre­cur­sor to es­sen­tial nu­tri­ent vi­ta­min A); was sec­ond in vi­ta­min C con­tent; fifth in cal­cium and sixth in iron con­tent. The book Edi­ble

Leaves of the Trop­ics de­scribes it as “year-round source of high-qual­ity food”. About 25 g of tree spinach are enough to meet the daily re­quire­ment of a per­son’s vi­ta­min in­take, says the Oc­to­ber 2002 is­sue of Eco­nomic

Botany. Stud­ies pub­lished in Cur­rent Re­search Jour­nal of Bi­o­log­i­cal Sciences and in In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Re­search in Phar­macy and Chem­istry in 2012 sug­gest tree spinach leaf ex­tracts can aid in re­gen­er­a­tion of beta cells of the pan­creas and thus help man­age di­a­betes. It also shows anti-tu­mour ac­tiv­ity. Small won­der, tree spinach is gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity world­wide as a su­per­food.

To tap its po­ten­tial, Vi­jayan asked the Kanzhi tribe to reg­u­larly con­sume the leaves. “Within a month, their health con­di­tions showed a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment. Its reg­u­lar use has helped them main­tain haemoglobin lev­els,” he says. How­ever, one must ex­er­cise cau­tion while con­sum­ing it.

The leaves re­lease hy­dro­cyanic acid, a toxin that can cause cyanide poi­son­ing with ef­fects vary­ing as per con­sump­tion amount. A study pub­lished in the Jan­uary 2018 is­sue of Jour­nal of Foren­sic Re­search says at an in­creased dosage, aque­ous leaf ex­tract of C aconi­ti­folius may in­duce liver dam­age in rats. How­ever, a 2003 study pub­lished in Plant Foods for

Hu­man Nu­tri­tion points out that the tox­ins get de­stroyed when the leaves are boiled in wa­ter for five min­utes.

Vi­jayan says he has not heard of ad­verse ef­fects of the leaves. How­ever, one should pluck ten­der leaves and cook them for 5-15 min­utes to be on the safe side. Alu­minium ves­sels should be avoided for cook­ing as hy­dro­cyanic acid tends to re­act with it, he adds.

Ideal for In­dia

In 2006, when the plant from the US was in­tro­duced in the coun­try at the In­dian Grass­land and Fod­der Re­search In­sti­tute (igfri), Jhansi, by the Na­tional Bureau of Plant Ge­netic Re­sources (nbpgr), New Delhi, the aim was to test its po­ten­tial for fod­der.

igfri sci­en­tists con­ducted a study and found that the plant is a rich source of omega-3-fatty acids and pro­teins, and hence can en­hance milk and meat pro­duc­tion among live­stock. Be­sides, the plant can pro­duce 150,000 kg of green fod­der per hectare. Since it grows vig­or­ously dur­ing sum­mer months, it can be an ex­cel­lent source of fod­der dur­ing scarcity pe­riod, say

igfri sci­en­tists. Anil Ku­mar, who was as­so­ci­ated with the study and now works as prin­ci­pal sci­en­tist with the Cen­tral In­sti­tute for Women in Agri­cul­ture, Bhubaneswar, says, “The plant holds prom­ise for ad­dress­ing the nu­tri­tion chal­lenge of both hu­mans and live­stock in the coun­try.”

Ker­ala has al­ready re­alised its po­ten­tial and is ask­ing com­mu­ni­ties of Id­dukki dis­trict to plant it un­der the flag­ship wa­ter sup­ply pro­gramme, Jalanidhi. San­thi­gram, a non-profit in Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram is pro­mot­ing the plant by dis­tribut­ing its stem cut­tings. It has re­cently of­fered the plant to 40 schools across the state so that tree spinach can be served as part of the mid-day meal. Prob­a­bly, the se­cret of Pop­eye’s power was not spinach—but tree spinach!

Scram­bled eggs pre­pared with ten­der tree spinach leaves is suf­fi­cient to take care of one's daily re­quire­ment of nu­tri­tion

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