The United Nations declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa,” recognizing the nutritious, Andean plant and its potential to eradicate hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. The remarkable functionality of quinoa sets it apart from the everyday foods that make up our diet, casting it into the category of ingredients known as “superfoods.” As the rates of largely preventable diseases like diabetes and heart disease continue to grow, so too does our interest in any foods that may hold the key to good health.
Though there is no one definition of the term, Julie Morris, a Los-Angeles based healthy food chef, natural living expert and author of Superfood Kitchen, defines superfoods as “nutrient-dense, benefit-rich foods found in nature.” According to Morris, what sets superfoods apart from other foods is their ratio of micronutrients per calorie. Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants. In Western society, we tend to look at our diets through the lens of macronutrients—proteins, fats, carbohydrates—placing little importance on powerful micronutrients and their potential to restore, energize and heal. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a New York Times bestselling author and internationally recognized expert on nutrition and natural healing, “Health is normal. The human body is a self-repairing, self-defending, self-healing marvel.” And Dr. Fuhrman suggests we eat nutrient-dense foods that bolster the body’s natural self-healing process in order to stay in a disease-free state of equilibrium.
Among the foods Dr. Fuhrman and Morris recommend are familiar fruits and vegetables, like berries, leafy greens, and citrus fruits, easily accessible in most places and great sources of potent nutrients. Morris likes to look at a superfoods diet as an “active ideology” that is flexible and modifiable. “The most nutrient-dense foods will differ with every environment you’re in,” she notes, “so just pick the best foods available wherever you are.” A lot of superfoods—even more exotic ones—can be found at your local health food store, and some are beginning to trickle into grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joes. Morris gets most of her ingredients online through Navitas Naturals, where she has worked as a recipe developer. She recommends buying only organic ingredients, since different countries have different regulations regarding what can be sprayed on crops. But no matter where you purchase superfoods, Morris suggests getting to know the company on a personal level. “Email them. Ask them questions. Call their customer service line and talk to them. Find a company you trust and make them like family.”
Though we are only beginning to incorporate more exotic superfoods into our diets, their healing properties are nothing new to the natives of the countries they come from. Each superfood has traditionally been used to help with everything from low libido to high anxiety. These ancient uses help illuminate potential benefits today, and how we can use these foods to fortify us to live the lives we want to lead. According to Morris, “If you ask someone today how they’re doing, they’ll answer ‘I’m busy!’ We’re not eating in a way that supports our industrious careers and the pursuit of our passions. The more we learn about the average food choice, the more we learn we’ve gotten it wrong. We’re starting to really take a look at how different foods help people in other countries. These different foods are becoming more accessible, and people are excited to be able to take charge of their own health.”
It may be time that we take a tip from those who’ve come before us and start incorporating some of these amazing foods into our diets. Morris says we shouldn’t be intimidated by these powerful ingredients, if we aren’t familiar with them or if we can’t pronounce them. “Superfoods are just natural things that exist in the world,” she says. “We shouldn’t think of them like vitamins that we have to take. Instead, they should be accessible and fun additions to our diets.”
There are countless superfoods from all over the world, but the diverse micro-climates of Peru are home to some unique and powerful specimens. These superfoods have been used by natives of the Andes and Amazonian regions for thousands of years. We picked five Peruvian powerhouses in particular and asked Morris to shed some light on how we can benefit from them today and incorporate them into our diet. As these foods continue to grow in popularity and prevalence, could it be that 2014 or 2015 will be the “International Year of Maca”?
Maca is a herbaceous biennial plant of the Andes region that grows at altitudes of 8,000 to 14,500 feet. One of the only food plants in the world that is able to survive at such a high altitude, Maca was incredibly valuable during the Incan Empire, due to its high nutrition and purported ability to enhance energy and libido. So desirable was the root that is was used as a form of currency during the Incan Empire and eaten by imperial warriors before going into battle. According to legend, after a city was conquered by Incan warriors, the women needed to be protected from their unrelenting libidos and ‘ambitious virility’.
Morris loves Maca powder for its energy-enhancing ability and flavor: “Maca is one of my favorite superfoods because it’s super energizing, but not in a jittery way like caffeine. It also has a really beautiful, interesting, earthy butterscotch flavor. If you smell it, you can get a sense of how it will taste right away.
Though Maca can be used to enhance the nutrition of both sweet and savory dishes, Morris likes to use Maca to bring out the flavor of chocolate and adds it to anything creamy or nut-based, like desserts or smoothies. Because of its strong flavor, Maca should be used sparingly, like a spice. “More isn’t necessarily better from a taste or health perspective,” Morris notes.
The cacao tree, a tree that likely originated in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, produces a fruit that is the basic ingredient in chocolate. According to legend, the Olmec were the first to discover the cacao fruit, when they observed rats happily feasting on the almond-shaped seeds that are hidden inside rough, leathery pods. To prepare the seeds or “beans,” the Olmec developed fermenting, drying, roasting and grinding processes, which required a deep knowledge of food science and biochemistry, and are still the basis of chocolate making today.
The Olmec consumed cacao in the form of drinking chocolate, laden with chili powder and spices. Residue left in a small bowl in 1800 B.C. at Paso de la Amada in southern Chiapas, Mexico is the earliest evidence of cacao use known today. The popularity of cacao has soared, and cacao trees now grow in tropical areas all over the world. One of rarest varieties was discovered in Peru only a few years ago.
Called Nacional, the beans are white, not the usual purple, and are the result of mutations that occur when trees are left undisturbed for hundreds of years. The white Nacional cacao beans are said to produce a more mellow-tasting, less acidic chocolate.
Cacao has a long history of medicinal use and has been know to alleviate fever, anemia, poor appetite, low virility, mental fatigue and poor breast milk production. Chocolate with high cacao content is packed with antioxidants and essential minerals. According to Morris, it’s really the added ingredients—the sugars, the oils, the dairy—that give chocolate a bad reputation. “I consider real chocolate—raw, pure, cacao—as something of a miracle food,” she says. “Cacao is one of the highest antioxidant foods in the world. And by itself, it’s sugar free.” Cacao comes in the form of powder and nibs and is a great way to add more nutritional value to smoothies, coffee drinks, and recipes that call for dark, bitter-sweet, or semi-sweet chocolate.
The camu camu berry is the most concentrated, potent botanical source of Vitamin C in the world. With 30 to 50 times the amount of Vitamin C in an orange, just one teaspoon of this powerful fruit contains nearly 1,200% of the recommended daily amount. Small and easy to carry, the Camu Camu berry has been used by Amazonian natives for hundreds of years as a pain reliever and to boost the immune system. The bark of the tree was also traditionally used in poultices to treat wounds and prevent infection.
Unlike most berries we eat, the Camu Camu berry is not sweet. “It’s a very bitter berry, and has the sort of taste you definitely want to hide,” says Morris. Luckily Camu Camu powder is so potent, you only need a pinch of it to catapult the nutritional content of any recipe. Because Vitamin C is heat sensitive, Morris suggests adding it to unheated sweet or savory recipes like salad dressings, frostings, jams or soups that are already finished.
Lucuma is a unique, subtropical fruit native to the Andean valleys of Peru, where it has been cultivated since 200AD. Once known as “The Gold of the Incas,” each Lucuma tree can produce up to 500 fruits, historically providing sustenance for indigenous communities when other crops failed.
Though Lucuma is extremely nutritious, containing high levels of beta-carotene and B vitamins, the fruit is most well known for its deliciously sweet flavor. “The best way I’ve heard the flavor described,” says Morris, “is like deliciously sweet milk that’s leftover after you’ve had a big bowl of cereal.” She describes the flavor as a cross between a sweet potato and a mango. Because Lucama has a low glycemic index, it makes for a great substitute for sugar and can be added to ice creams and smoothies, and used in baking.
Though Morris recognizes the many health benefits of Lucuma, she doesn’t quite consider it to be a top-tier superfood, since its main value is as a sugar substitute, and not as a source of nutrition. If you travel to Peru, you can add the sweet fruit to your diet in the form of a delicious scoop of ice cream. It’s Peru’s most popular flavor, outselling both chocolate and vanilla.
The Sacha Inchi plant, or “Inca Peanut,” as it is sometimes called, is indigenous to the Amazon rainforest in Peru and bears fruit capsules containing powerfully potent seeds. These seeds are one of the best sources of essential fatty acids in the world, at nearly 50% omega-3 by volume. Because the human body cannot produce essential fatty acids, they have to be acquired from the foods we eat, and Sacha Inchi is by far the most potent resource available to us. Essential fatty acids have been linked with the formation of healthy cells and the prevention of heart disease.
Sacha Inchi is believed to have been first discovered by civilizations that pre-date the Incas, and images of Sacha Inchi seeds are found on shards of pottery from the tombs of the Mochica and Chimú cultures. Because of their ability to ease aching muscles and joints, the seeds were toasted and eaten to prepare for a day of hard labor or before going into battle. Oil from the seeds was extracted and mixed with flour to make rejuvenating creams to revitalize skin, and body rubs to relieve aches and pains.
When roasted, the seeds have a very nutty flavor, and Morris suggests using them in recipes as a substitute for peanuts or wherever a recipe calls for a mix of nuts. She notes that when cooked down, the seeds have a very “umami” taste and can give dishes a really satisfying flavor, plus pack them with an amazing dose of healthy omega fats.
Illustration by So Yeon Kim.