“Superfoods” are a category of nutritionally dense foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and fish. In their natural, unprocessed form, superfoods contain disease-fighting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, oils and essential fatty acids. When paired with a healthy diet and exercise, Peruvian superfoods can promote physical and mental well-being.
Peru’s national pantry is broad and deep, stocked by extreme ecological and cultural diversity. In fact, the country’s diverse geography includes 28 of the world’s 32 climate zones, which perhaps explains the abundance of superfoods that originate here. Even if their impressive nutritional benefits don’t grab your attention, the superfoods that we share with you in this blog are ridiculously delicious, too.
Lucuma is the fruit that grows on the Pouteria lucuma tree, a species of Sapotaceae tree that grows in Andean valleys. From the outside lucuma looks like an avocado, but cut it open and its insides reveal rich golden orange tones. Known as the preferred fruit of the Incas, and beloved to this day, lucuma has a wonderfully creamy texture and a caramelly, desert-like flavor that makes it irresistible. Best part: it’s super healthy, too! We can’t get enough.
- Region: Coastal Andean Valleys of Peru, Chile and Ecuador at 3,300 to 7,900 feet above sea level.
- Nutrients: Significant source of antioxidants and healthy carbohydrates. This superfood also contains 14 essential trace elements, including sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium. Furthermore, it’s packed with beta carotene, iron, zinc, vitamin B3, protein and calcium. In fact, a serving of lucuma has about as much calcium as a cup of cow’s milk.
- Health Benefits: The vitamins noted above help keep your bones healthy and strong. Eating lucuma also helps in mitigating the effects of aging because it is a natural detox fruit. This fruit is antibiotic, antimicrobial, antifungal and anti-carcinogenic.
- Flavor Notes: Sweet potato, with a touch of maple, caramel and butterscotch.
- Uses: Peruvians really love lucuma superfood, but it is not the type of fruit you bite into, as it has a bit of a dry consistency. Typically, lucuma is a flavor base for ice cream, healthy juices and even yogurt! In the United States, you may see “lucuma sugar” used as a low-glycemic sweetener in certain chocolates and desserts.
- Recipe Idea: Lucuma Ice Cream
Also known as the Inca berry, goldenberries are another superfood that make a great snack or addition to your morning breakfast. In Peru, goldenberries are called aguaymanto, and are actually related to tomatillos. The berries grow on the Physalis peruviana plant, a nightshade species with its origins in Peru. Interestingly, this fruit has a strong citric flavor with a little sweetness too, and research shows that its cultivation dates back to the times of the Inca.
- Region: Grown on the Andean slopes of Peru and Chile at 1,600–9,800 ft above sea level.
- Nutrients: A great source of antioxidants. Also, surprisingly, a big handful of these berries provides you with about 2 grams of protein. Additionally, they’re packed with vitamins A, C, B1, B2 and B6, plus trace minerals iron, potassium, zinc and phosphorus.
- Health Benefits: The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties make aguaymanto very heart healthy, while the range of vitamins can help boost immunity. The protein can help keep you strong and energized, as well.
- Flavor Notes: It is like eating a zesty and slightly sour pineapple that has the same size and texture of a cherry tomato.
- Uses: Goldenberries are used to make jams, pies, puddings, chutneys and ice cream. They are also often used as regional garnishes for fancy desserts. However, oftentimes locals will just pop them in their mouth as is or or throw them in a salad. In the United States, you might find dried golden berries (similar to raisins) in health food stores, which taste great sprinkled over granola and cereals.
- Recipe Idea: Mango and Aguaymanto Flan
Kiwicha, also known as amaranth or “mini quinoa” is one of the healthiest, most popular Andean superfoods. This edible seed grows on the Amaranthus caudatus plant, an annual flowering plant native to South America. The plant itself is sometimes referred to as the love-lies-bleeding plant, perhaps due to the bright red appearance from its high content of betacyanins – a rich antioxidant. These little seeds are dense with nutrients and have been farmed in Peru for more than 4000 years. Also, as a plus, they’re gluten free!
- Region: Kiwicha grows in the Andes and thrives between 5,000 all the way to a soaring 11,800 feet above sea level.
- Nutrients: This seed is packed with dietary fiber, calcium and vitamins B6 and B9.
- Health Benefits: Kiwicha can support cardiovascular and digestive health. The bioactive properties can also help lower your cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Flavor Notes: Kiwicha has an earthy and nutty flavor, somewhere between whole wheat bread and brown rice.
- Uses: Kiwicha is sold whole, powdered and flaked. It is easily added to a variety of recipes and everyday products. You can add it for a boost of nutrients to your soups, porridges, cereals, pancakes and baked goods. You can also sprinkle it over a salad, or use it as a breading in recipes.
- Recipe Idea: Coconut Kiwicha Balls
Yes, you read that correctly: corn that is purple. Purple corn, or Maiz morado in Spanish, only grows in Peru and has been cultivated by cultures from the region for thousands of years. So, you’re probably wondering where this corn gets its purple hue? The pigment responsible for its dark purple color is anthocyanin, which is a powerful antioxidant with many health benefits. Purple corn may look and taste similar to its yellow corn cousin, but it’s actually packed with way more antioxidants, protein and fiber.
- Region: Grown in the Andes 8,500-10,500 ft above sea level
- Nutrients: Fiber, protein and antioxidants including anthocyanins, lutein and zeaxanthin
- Health Benefits: Antioxidants help boost your immune system, promote blood circulation, and have anti-aging benefits. Lutein and zeaxanthin in particular improve eye health and vision.
- Flavor Notes: It tastes like sweet corn with a crisp and tender consistency.
- Uses: In Peru, it’s very common to drink a purple corn beverage called chicha morada. Fruit, cinnamon, cloves, and sugar flavor this beverage. You can also treat yourself to mazamorra morada, a typical Peruvian dessert. It has a pudding-like texture and spiced with cinnamon and cloves to give the dessert its signature berry pie-like flavored filling.
- Recipe Idea: Chicha Morada
In Peru, quinoa is the undeniable superstar among power foods. Quinoa, Chenopodium quinoa, has been cultivated in the Andes for millennia, and is a flowering plant in the amaranth family. The quinoa seeds are gluten-free, making it a popular option for those with celiac disease. It is native to the Lake Titicaca basin of the Peruvian highlands, and humans ate it for 4,000 years and fed it to livestock for as many as 7,000 years. As you can see, this plant is truly exceptional when it comes to the history of Peruvian superfoods.
- Region: Quinoa grows primarily in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia. It is super resilient to altitude, and its optimal elevation for growth is between 8,200 to 13,000 feet above sea level.
- Nutrients: Complete protein with all nine essential amino acids, fiber, magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin E, calcium, iron, antioxidants and more.
- Health Benefits: Protein content makes it excellent for vegetarians and vegans, fiber content can reduce blood sugar levels and cholesterol and aid in weight loss, and the iron can help oxygenate the blood and improve brain function.
- Flavor Notes: Quinoa has a fluffy consistency and the size is similar to couscous. It has a nutty, clean flavor like a cross between brown rice and oatmeal. It can sometimes be bitter or flavorless. To avoid bitterness, it is important to rinse quinoa thoroughly before use. For lack of flavor, it is best to roast the seeds before preparing to release more aroma.
- Uses: Quinoa can be used as a sort of high-protein substitute for rice in any dish. In Peru, however, it is common to serve quinoa as a flavorful stew (guiso de quinua) with rice on the side. Quinoa is also frequently simmered with apples, pineapple and cinnamon as a nutritious morning brew.
- Recipe Idea: How to Cook Quinoa + 17 Recipes
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. In fact, the plant can survive underwater for up to 5 months and local people harvest camu camu by canoe. The skin of the camu camu berry paints juices and pulps a delicious shade of pink. Actually, this Peruvian superfood is known for its vitamin C content and per ounce has 30 to 50 times more vitamin C than an orange.
- Region: Lowlands and floodplains of the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon, typically between sea level and 200 feet.
- Nutrients: Camu camu berry is an unparalleled natural source of vitamin C. It also contains antioxidants, particularly ellagic acid. Further, it contains iron, niacin, riboflavin, phosphorus and potassium.
- Health Benefits: Vitamin C boosts immunity and has anti-aging effects. The antioxidants can help carcinogens from binding to DNA. In addition, camu camu is an active ingredient in traditional medicine as an antiviral to treat cold and flu symptoms, shingles, and herpes. It is also helps improve cataracts and glaucoma.
- Flavor Notes: 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.
- Uses: 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.
- Recipe Idea: Camu Camu Smoothie
Lepedium meyenii, or maca, is a cruciferous root vegetable that looks like a radish or turnip. The dried maca root has the nickname “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. In Peru, studies reveal that maca fueled the expansion of the Inca empire and stories are told of Inca warriors fed on diets heavy in maca in preparation for battle. Today, maca is widely regarded as a natural energizer and is consumed across South America.
- Region: Maca is native to the Junin region of Peru, an area characterized by altitudes between 12,400 and 14,700 feet.
- Nutrients: Maca contains carbohydrates, protein and fiber. It is also low in fat and sodium, and rich in calcium and potassium
- Health Benefits: 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. Maca works by balancing the endocrine system to relieve fatigue, increase energy, and balance moods.
- Flavor Notes: 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.
- Uses: In Peru, maca is used to make brews, porridges, breads, and other cooked foods like meats and potatoes. Outside of Peru, maca is available as a health food pill, powder, or liquid – great to add to smoothies.
- Recipe Idea: Hormone Balancing Almond, Maca and Cinnamon Smoothie
The perennial plant Plukenetia volubilis is endemic to the high altitude rainforest on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Peru. The plant thrives in acidic, alluvial soils, and gives a green star-shaped fruit. The pods contain oval seeds that are similar to almonds in size and shape. Sacha inchi’s nickname is the Inca peanut or literally “the people’s seeds.” In archaeological excavations, scientists find representations of the sacha inchi plant on vessels in Inca tombs, suggesting that ancient people traded and consumed the seed for several centuries.
- Region: Sacha Inchi has been cultivated for centuries on the eastern slopes of the Andes at altitudes of up to 5,500 ft.
- Nutrients: Sacha inchi has high levels of protein and omega 3 fatty acids. Additionally, the seeds are an excellent source of tryptophan and the antioxidants vitamins A and E, calcium, zinc, potassium, and fiber.
- Health Benefits: Unsaturated fatty acids like omega-3s can improve cardiovascular health, lower cholesterol, boost brain function, and protect against cancer. The antioxidant content helps fight against damage by free radicals.
- Flavor Notes: Cold-pressed sacha inchi oil has mild, refreshing, and nutty flavor. Some say it has a slightly fishy flavor as well.
- Uses: People in Peru often use the roasted seeds, cooked leaves, and extracted oils of the sacha inchi plant. Keep in mind that the raw seeds of sacha inchi are inedible. Producers toast, shell, and sell in sealed packages to keep fresh, as they can go bad pretty easily. You can also use sacha inchi as an oil to drizzle over salads or vegetables.
- Recipe Idea: Energizing Sacha Inchi Protein Balls
Coca, or Erythroxylum coca, is grown throughout Peru, from the Andes to the Amazon basin. It also grows in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia. Though traditionally a medicinal health food, coca is present in the illegal and highly addictive drug cocaine. Actually, to produce cocaine, chemists add solvents to immense quantities of the leaves and a harsh chemical process extracts the psychoactive alkaloid. However, the leaves themselves are powerful superfoods, with a strong medicinal and ceremonial role in Andean culture. People have cultivated the leaves for over 8,000 years for religious and health use, only in 1880 did a German chemist isolate cocaine through chemical extraction.
- Region: Tropical forests of the Eastern Andes in Peru and Bolivia, as well as the lowlands of the Peruvian Amazon basin. Typically grows between 2,000-2,600 feet elevation, but can grow as high as 6,200 feet.
- Nutrients: Coca leaves are packed with vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, C and E plus minerals calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. It also contains some fiber and protein.
- Health Benefits: Tourists and locals alike frequently use coca leaves to combat altitude sickness. They can also help relieve fatigue, hunger and thirst.
- Flavor Notes: Earthy, sweet and mildly bitter. It is both pleasant and pungent at the same time.
- Uses: Traditionally, the raw leaves are chewed or brewed into a tea. Commonly, candies and green powders for altitude sickness contain coca as well. Ceremonially, Andean people offer whole leaves to the earth, sun and mountains or use them for divination.
- Recipe Idea: How to Make Coca Tea. Disclaimer: Because of concern with cocaine production, coca leaves are illegal to bring into the United States, even in small quantities. If you are in Peru, however, you can find the leaves at any market and prepare this tea while in the country.
Panela is not a Peruvian superfood, per say. It is a solid, unrefined, whole cane sugar boiled and evaporated from the sugarcane plant or Saccharum officinarum. However, in a world where people are fighting against refined sugar, panela – an unrefined, low-glycemic sweetener – is a welcome item. Panela has taken the health food world by storm in Peru, and you can find this health food product at just about every farmers market. While it’s still, in essence, a sugar, it does contain a higher level of micronutrients than its refined relative. This makes it a staple item among the health conscious.
- Region: Panela comes from sugarcane, which is a perennial grass that grows at tropical and subtropical climates in South America and around the world. Sugarcane can grow sea level to as high as 2,000 feet.
- Nutrients: Panela contains calcium, magnesium and iron.
- Health Benefits: It is a lower-glycemic alternative to refine white sugar, and has immunological benefits and higher levels of micronutrients. Helps prevent anemia and fight against respiratory and urinary diseases.
- Flavor Notes: Exact flavor notes can range depending on the region in which it’s grown, but it is definitely sweet, with notes of molasses, caramel, burnt sugar, fruit, and/or flowers.
- Uses: In Peru, it is used to make chancaca, a warm sweet sauce made with orange peel and cinnamon and used in Peruvian desserts like champús and picarones.
- Recipe Idea: Miel de Panela (Panela Honey)
Vegans and vegetarians celebrate tarwi for its protein content. Scientifically known as Lupinus mutabilis, tarwi is a flowering plant that grows in the Andes. It bears an edible seed, similar to a bean. It has gone relatively unknown in the health food movement due to its bitter taste, but has been used among people of the Andes for centuries in a variety of traditional dishes. Today, you can find it popping up at health food stores and farmers markets across Peru as a protein or cheese substitute – presented in a similar fashion as tofu or nut cheeses.
- Region: Valleys of the Peruvian Andes at tropical latitudes, between 2,600 to 10,000 feet above sea level.
- Nutrients: High levels of protein, especially the essential amino acid lysine plus omega 6 fatty acids, with a small percent of omega 3s. Tarwi also contains B vitamins, and essential minerals like zinc and magnesium.
- Health Benefits: This Peruvian superfood can help fight against cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular issues. It can also aid in weight loss, improve digestion and help build and improve muscle function.
- Flavor Notes: Tarwi has a salty, nutty and slightly bitter flavor (that can be minimized if soaked a couple days). The texture is smooth and firm, similar to soybeans.
- Uses: Traditionally, tarwi is used in soups, stews, salads or simply on its own boiled alongside Peruvian corn. Today people prepare tarwi in veggie ceviche and other products like vegan spreadable cheese or tarwi tofu.
- Recipe Idea: Albondigas de Tarwi (Tarwi Meatballs)
Ollucos, or Ullucus tuberosus, is a type of flowering plant cultivated mainly as a root vegetable, though the nutrient-dense leaves are also sometimes used. They may look like potatoes, but surprisingly they are a completely unrelated species botanically, and many would say the taste and consistency is quite different as well. These nutritious Peruvian superfoods have been eaten by indigenous people of the Andean highlands since ancient times, and are popular in Peruvian cuisine to this day. Olluco is very versatile and actually an excellent source of protein and other key nutrients.
- Region: Grown in the Andes mountains of Peru and Bolivia as high as 13,800 ft above sea level.
- Nutrients: This tuber is a good source of carbohydrates, fiber and vitamin c, and a moderate source of protein with all nine of its essential amino acids as well. They also contain high levels of betacyanins, a powerful antioxidant.
- Health Benefits: While the betacyanin content can help fight against cancer and cardiovascular disease, the carbs and fiber can satisfy you and aid in digestion, and the 9 essential amino acids, though moderate, can provide energy and strength.
- Flavor Notes: The flavor is like an earthy potato with a hint of squash, and a firm, crisp and slightly slimy consistency.
- Uses: Traditionally, olluco is sliced and prepared in soups and stews. It is also popularly an addition to salads or pickled in hot sauces. Its most popular preparation today, linked below, is olluco con carne. To make, you julienne and add the root with steak, hot pepper, spices, potatoes and rice.
- Recipe Idea: Olluco con Carne
Yacon, Smallanthus sonchifolius, also known as Peruvian ground apple, is a type of perennial daisy with origins in the northern and central Andes Mountains of Peru and surrounding countries. It has an appearance similar to sweet potato with the texture and flavor similar to jicama. Ancient people of Peru used yacon as a medicinal plant and prepared it in a variety of stews and other dishes. Interestingly, the Inca and the even earlier the Moche civilizations enjoyed this food during special occasions and spiritual ceremonies. Today, yacon syrup, makes a sweet syrup that is super low glycemic with powerful health benefits.
- Region: Middle elevations of the Andes, between 6,500 and 11,000 feet above sea level
- Nutrients: Most notably, yacon contains the healthy carbohydrate fructooligosaccharides (FOS), or prebiotic fibers. Additionally, yacon contains potassium and vitamin c.
- Health Benefits: Yacon helps boost immunity, lowers blood pressure, regulates blood sugar, improves digestion and supports weight loss. Further, prebiotics help the body absorb minerals, multiplying the plants benefits.
- Flavor Notes: Yacon is a crisp and sweet tuber with fruity, floral and earthy notes.
- Uses: Super versatile, Yacon can be used for stews, soups, stir frys, salads or just roasted alongside your favorite protein. Peruvians also make juices and sweet syrups with this root veggie.
- Recipe Idea: Roasted Yacon with Feta, Chilli and Lime
If you didn’t know any of the other Peruvian superfoods on the list, you certainly know this one. The Theobroma cacao plant bears cocoa beans – the dried and fermented seeds that make chocolate. And guess what? Cacao, dearly beloved across the globe, is native to the Amazon basin and Andean foothills of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Moreover, this popular superfood, while being delicious, is rich in minerals and antioxidants. In fact, theobroma means “food of the gods” in Latin. Traditionally, native communities used cacao to make frothy medicinal brews mixed with fruit juices, spices and medicinal plants.
- Region: Grown in the Andean foothills and deep Amazon basin of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Cacao grows between 100 to 1000 feet.
- Nutrients: Cacao is rich in essential minerals magnesium, iron, calcium, sodium, zinc, potassium, copper and phosphorus. It is also contains flavonoid antioxidants, plus it contains caffeine and theobromine.
- Health Benefits: Anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, and fights against heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. It can also aid in fighting anxiety and depression. The caffeine and theobromine can help boost energy levels and elevate mood.
- Flavor Notes: Raw cacao tastes very bitter with an earthy, almost dirt-like flavor. With sugar, berries, fruit, butter, vanilla and caramel flavors come out. Depending on how dark the chocolate is, it will have a bitter and astringent to increasingly creamy and sweet consistency.
- Uses: Commonly makes desserts, chocolate bars and truffles. Hot chocolate and light cacao tea made with the shells are other popular preparations. For more of a health food application, people sprinkle raw nibs on top of granola, or blend raw powder into smoothies.
- Recipe Idea: 3-Ingredient Raw Cacao Balls
Cherimoya, Annona cherimola, also known as custard apple for its creamy consistency, grows throughout the Peruvian, Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Chilean and Colombian Andes. Researchers believed cherimoya originated in this Peru, but studies find its origins in Central America. Other spellings are chirimoya or chirimuyu, which in Quechua means “cold seeds.” This fruit is rich in vitamins and minerals, and has a super unique and delicious flavor – so much so that Mark Twain declared it “the most delicious fruit known to man.” The fleshy, sweet fruit grows on the annona cherimola tree, a low evergreen tree or shrub. This fruit is available in abundance in just about any market and fruit stand in Peru.
- Region: Annona cherimola flourishes in tropical areas of the Andes between 4,300-8,500 feet.
- Nutrients: High in vitamin C, B6 and magnesium. It is also a source of fiber, antioxidants, and minerals like iron, zinc, phosphorus, copper and manganese.
- Health Benefits: Fights against toxins, chronic illnesses and cancer. Can boost immunity, eye health and mood. Can aid in digestion and fight inflammation.
- Flavor Notes: The creamy and decadent cherimoya fruit has a super interesting flavor that blends the flavors of strawberry, pineapple, banana, papaya and peach all into one. It has a green outside and a white inside with black seeds.
- Uses: Typically it is simply cut in half and eaten with a spoon, but it can also be incorporated into juices, smoothies, purees, ice cream and puddings.
- Recipe Idea: Raw Cherimoya Custard Pudding
Sample the Superfoods
The best way to enjoy all of these Peruvian superfoods is to take a trip to the land where they grow. Whether from the river valleys, mountain peaks or deep jungle, these healthy whole foods can significantly improve your health – both body and mind. Peruvians celebrate the fruits, beans, roots, leaves and berries of their country from ancient times to today. Fortunately, you have the opportunity to try every single one on a trip to this prized, fertile land. Talk to a travel advisor to learn how you can incorporate superfood experiences into your Peru travel package, whether by a local market tour, farm visit or culinary experience.
Contact an expert travel advisor today to build your fully custom trip to Peru, and they can include exposure to and sampling of Peruvian superfoods.