Sclerocarya birrea, commonly known as the marula, is a medium-sized tree, indigenous to the woodlands of Southern Africa. Interestingly, the distribution of marula throughout Africa and Madagascar has followed the Bantu people in their migrations. In particular, the Bantu people are the speakers of the Bantu languages, including several hundred indigenous ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa, and they are the ones that regarded marula as the“Food of Kings”. Let’s see why.
The marula trees grow most abundantly in dry, open woodlands while the marula fruits are the size of a plum and have thick yellow skin and white, soft flesh. The fruits of marula are traditionally used for food in Africa, and have considerable socioeconomic importance. The fruit juice and pulp are mixed with water and stored in a container over 1-3 days of fermentation to make the marula beer (a traditional alcoholic beverage) while the marula oil is used topically to moisturise the skin, and as an edible oil in the diet of people in Southern Africa.
In a study that was published in 2018 “Anti-aging potential of extracts from Sclerocarya birrea (A. Rich.) Hochst and its chemical profiling by UPLC-Q-TOF-MS”, researchers concluded that the ethanolic extract of Marula stems can be used as an anti-aging ingredient, as it demonstrated to counteract in vitro the biological aging of skin.
In particular, when elastase and collagenase inhibition activities of the extracts and marula oil were determined, results indicated that:
- the marula stems extracts were the most active as they exhibited anti-elastase activity (> 88%) and anti-collagenase activity (> 76%) comparable to that of positive controls,
- the leaf extract had moderate anti-elastase activity (54%) but no anti-collagenase activity, and
- the marula fruits and oil exhibited limited activity in both assays.
Since the ethanolic extract of marula stems was the most suitable, six compounds were later identified in its chemical profile, with epigallocatechin gallate and epicatechin gallate being as potent as the positive control in anti-collagenase assays.
For that reason, the researchers concluded that epicatechin gallate and epigallocatechin gallate contributed to the Marula’s stem ethanol extract counteracting skin aging activity, since the opposite, namely the degradation of major components of the extracellular matrix such as elastin and collagen by the enzymes elastase and collagenase, accelerates skin aging.
In fact, it’s not a surprise that the marula oil has a long history of traditional use encompassing food and cosmetic uses. For example, in most southern African countries, the oil from marula has been used for a variety of cosmetic purposes such as skin moisturiser, for maintenance of healthy skin, processed into soap, and as a shampoo for dry, damaged and fragile hair.
Because of this, the demand for this African oil increased tremendously around the 2000s since it became a popular ingredient in cosmetics such as skin lotions, lipsticks and foundations. Later, a clinical trial published in 2015 (Safety and efficacy of Sclerocarya birrea (A.Rich.) Hochst (Marula) oil: A clinical perspective) confirmed why the Zulu people in South Africa, amongst others, applied the oil to maintain a healthy skin.
Specifically, when the marula oil was applied on healthy Caucasian adult female volunteers (n = 20), results indicated that the marula oil (rich in fatty acids) has moisturising, hydrating and occlusive properties. In conclusion, as the oil is non-irritating and provides a moisturising effect with moderate prevention of trans-epidermal water loss, its inclusion in cosmetic products for counteracting skin’s biological aging is justified.
Moreover, after years of innovative research in Africa, a new oil (the Maruline) was developed. The Maruline is 100% marula oil with enhanced antioxidant properties obtained through a patented process. The marula nuts contain an oil with a fatty acid composition comparable to that of olive oil, but with much greater stability (×10) due to its tocopherol/sterol composition. The oil also has an amino acid profile that is similar to that for human milk and whole hens’ eggs, although deficient in lysine.
Consequently, the oil is considered to have a great potential in the food industry where it could be used as a coating of dried fruit, as frying oil or as a substitute for high-oleic safflower oil in baby foods (Sclerocarya birrea: Overview from Science Direct).
But there is more!
The marula fruit serves also as an important source of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) for the rural people, since marula has a high ascorbic acid content of between 54 and 190 mg per 100 g, and this is much higher than the average amount of ascorbic acid (a potent antioxidant agent that functions in fighting bacterial infections, in detoxifying reactions, and in the formation of collagen in fibrous tissue, teeth, bones, connective tissue, skin, and capillaries) found in the orange.
In another study, results from an animal study indicated that marula’s stem-bark aqueous extract possesses analgesic, anti-inﬂammatory and hypoglycaemic properties. These ﬁndings gave pharmacological support to the suggested folkloric uses of the plant’s stem-bark in the management and/or control of pain, inﬂammatory conditions, and adult onset of type-2 diabetes in some communities of South Africa.
Finally, since the Marula oil is counteracting biological aging and is promoting a healthy aging by having all the above biological activities, it is not a surprise why it has been named the “Food of Kings”.
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