“Superfoods” are a category of nutritionally dense foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and fish. In their natural, unprocessed form, superfoods are packed with disease-fighting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, oils, and essential fatty acids. When paired with a healthy diet and exercise, superfoods can promote physical and mental well-being. Peru is home to a wide variety of superfoods, including quinoa, as well as some vitamin-packed alternatives that are quickly gaining international popularity.
Quinoa, the Incan Stamp of Approval
In Peru and South America, quinoa is the undeniable superstar among power foods. Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes for hundreds of years. Without the benefit of scientific analysis, ancient peoples recognized the healthful properties of the quinoa seed and it has been a staple food of Andean communities until modern times.
Today we know that quinoa is a complete protein (8g per cup serving), rich in fiber (5g per serving), low in calories, free of gluten, and packed full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It is popular not just among healthy eaters but also among gourmands around the world. In recognition of quinoa’s extraordinary nutritive profile and its potential to combat global hunger if cultivated more widely, the UN declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.
Beyond quinoa, Peru’s national pantry is broad and deep, stocked by extreme ecological and cultural diversity. The country’s diverse geography includes 28 of the world’s 32 climate zones, which perhaps explains the abundance of superfoods that have their origin here.
Camu Camu, Nature’s Vitamin C
What is it? Camu camu is the cherry-sized, purple-red fruit of a low-growing shrub with the scientific name Myrciaria dubia. It is native to the Amazon lowland rainforests of Peru and Brazil and thrives in the floodplains; in fact, the plant can survive underwater for period of up to 5 months. Camu camu berries are harvested by canoe.
Superfood profile: Camu camu berry is an unparalleled natural source of vitamin C, which is known to boost the immune system. Per ounce, camu camu has 30 to 50 times more vitamin C than an orange and contains 2-3% vitamin C by weight. The anti-aging effects of vitamin C on the skin has also led to the development of cosmetic uses. Iron, niacin, riboflavin, phosphorous, and potassium are also present in camu camu. Preliminary scientific studies on the antioxidative properties of camu camu show that the berries are a source of ellagic acid, which stops carcinogens from binding to DNA.
Taste: With all that vitamin C, it’s got to be tart, right? Yes, so much so that raw camu camu is unpleasant. To make juice, camu camu pulp is diluted in water and sweetened with sugar. Camu camu in powder form has a tart, berry flavor.
Past and Present: Ethno-botanists have found that camu camu is used in traditional medicine as an anti-viral to treat cold and flu symptoms, shingles, and herpes. It is used to improve cataracts and glaucoma and to maintain healthy gums and skin. Japan and the U.S. are huge importers of camu camu in pulp, powder, and dried extracts. In the Amazon of Peru and Brazil, cultivated plant fields are becoming a huge source of actual and potential income for farmers.
How to use it: In Peru, camu camu pulp adds a tart flavor to ice cream and juices. Outside of Peru and Brazil, camu camu is available as pulp, as an extract in pill form to take as an alternative source of natural vitamin C, and as a powder to mix with juices, sweets, and ice cream.
Maca, Aphrodisiacal Plant
What is it? Lepedium meyenii, or maca, is a cruciferous root vegetable that looks like a radish or turnip. It is native to the Junin region of Peru, an area characterized by high altitudes (between 3,800 and 4,500 meters of elevation), strong winds, and intense sunlight. Maca is also grown in the Bolivian Andes. The dried maca root is also known as “Peruvian ginseng,” not because of any relationship between the plants, but rather because of its effects, particularly when it comes to physical stamina, endurance, and sexual energy. Today, maca is widely regarded as a natural energizer and is consumed across South America.
Superfood profile: The nutritional attributes of maca are unusual for a root vegetable. It contains 60-76% carbohydrates, 10-14% protein, 8.5% fiber. It is low in fat and sodium, rich in calcium, and potassium. Maca root is an adaptogen, which means that it raises the body’s resistance to disease. The alleged medicinal properties of maca are many, but the biggest claim is that it functions best as an aphrodisiac and to increase fertility. Although more scientific research is needed to fully establish if and how maca affects the body, initial studies suggest that maca works by balancing the endocrine system to relieve fatigue, increase energy, and balance moods. One study found that maca use enhanced male libido when taken in doses of 1,500 mg to 3,000mg/day.
Taste: Maca has an earthy, slightly nutty taste that is both sweet and slightly bitter. The malty flavor that mixes well with smoothies. When cooked, maca has a butterscotch aroma. Some people find the taste and smell of maca disagreeable.
Past and Present: In Peru, the history of maca is surrounded by myth and legend. Most people say that maca fueled the expansion of the Inca empire and they tell stories of Incas warriors fed on diets heavy in maca in preparation for battle. The chronicles also say that, in the period after the conquest, Spanish settlers and their horses were weakened by the high altitude environment. Upon the recommendation of the natives, the settlers began to consume maca. The Spaniards felt and saw an immediate improvement and they started to demand maca as tribute. Across the Andes today, maca is still highly regarded for its nutritional and medicinal powers. It is sold ubiquitously in stores and markets as a dried root, as a flour, and in in prepared foods.
How to use it: In Peru, maca is almost never eaten raw. Instead, it is brewed to make a sweet, weak beer called chicha de maca; it’s baked in a huatia alongside meats and potatoes; it’s boiled, mashed, and mixed with milk to make porridge; and as a flour, it’s added to breads and other cooked foods. Outside of Peru, maca is available as a pill, powder, or liquid. Mix the powder in cold drinks to make smoothies, shakes, and juices; or sprinkle over cooked food or yogurt. People unaccustomed to consuming maca should start slowly as it is anecdotally known to cause insomnia and bloating when used in excess.
Sacha Inchi, the Inca Peanut
What is it? The perennial plant Plukenetia volubis is endemic to the high altitude rainforest on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Peru, where it has been cultivated for centuries and grows at altitudes of up to 1,700 m (5,500 ft). The plant thrives on acidic, alluvial soils. It gives a green star-shaped fruit that ripens to dark brown when ready for harvest. The pods contain oval seeds that are similar to almonds in size and shape. These are known as sacha inchi, the Inca peanut or literally “the people’s seeds.” The seeds are roasted and eaten as nuts or processed to make sacha inchi oil.
Superfood powers: High protein (27%) and oil (35-60%) content is what makes the sacha inchi seed exceptional. As an cold-pressed oil, sacha ichi has more protein and more omega-3 fatty acids (linolenic acid) than olive, soy, or flax oils. As part of healthy diet, unsaturated fatty acids like omega-3s can improve cardiovascular health, lower cholesterol, boost brain function, and protect against cancer. Additionally, the seeds are an excellent source of tryptophan and the antioxidants vitamins A and E, calcium, zinc, potassium, and fiber.
Taste: Cold-pressed sacha inchi oil has mild, refreshing, and nutty flavor.
Past and present: In archaeological excavations, scientists have found representations of the sacha inchi plant on vessels in Inca tombs, suggesting that the seed has been traded and consumed for several centuries. Native Andean communities continue to consume the roasted seeds, cooked leaves, and extracted oils of the sacha inchi plant. It is used especially to assist the growth of children and to ensure the longevity of older persons in the community. Meanwhile, researchers are investigating the sustainable cultivation and nutritional potential of the sacha inchi plant.
How to use it: The raw seeds of sacha inchi are inedible. The seeds are toasted, shelled, and sold in sealed packages, but toasting diminishes the health benefits of the oils and the nuts become rancid as time passes. Outside of the Amazon, it’s best to use sacha inchi as an oil. Drizzle over salads or vegetables like in this gourmet preparation or use it to cook meats and fish. Or try powdered Sacha Inchi in cooking recipes, like energizing protein spheres.
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Anabel has been exploring the length and width of South America since 2010. Ditching preconceptions, settling into the local pace, and embracing the unexpected are the tenets of her philosophy of travel – and life.