What is Sacha Inchi?
The word ‘superfood’ gets bandied about with increasing regularity these days and many of the newly discovered superfoods seem to come straight out of the Amazon region of South America. Sacha inchi is yet another South American food that has been heralded for its nutritional value and medicinal qualities.
Whether or not it is a true superfood is open to debate but this article will take a detailed look at the plant and its potential benefits for your health.
Sacha inchi, or Plukenetia volubilis to give it its scientific name, is a South American perennial plant in the family Euphorbiaceae. The plant is a native of many tropical parts of South America including Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Suriname.
In recent times, some South East Asian countries like Thailand have started to cultivate the plant. In my home town in the North of Thailand, sacha inchi is becoming more and more popular with even local shops selling bags of the stuff at a very reasonable price.
Sacha inchi is also known by a number of other names including mountain peanut, Inca peanut and sacha peanut. It has been cultivated by the locals in Peru for many centuries and thrives in warm climates with good drainage and plenty of water. It fares best in acidic soil and flats close to rivers.
Plukenetia volubilis grows to a height of around 2 meters with heart shaped leaves. The plant flowers just five months after it was planted and usually bears seeds after 8 months or so. The flowers are small and white appearing in clusters. When cultivated, the plant requires support for the vine to grow and can produce seeds most of the year round.
The plant’s fruits are actually capsules of around 3 to 5 centimeters diameter with between 4 and 7 points. They are green to begin with but turn a black or dark brown color when ripe. Once the fruit has ripened, they contain an inedible soft, wet pulp so they are allowed to dry naturally on the plant prior to being harvested.
By the time the plant is a few years old, there will be as many as a hundred fruits ready for harvesting. A hundred fruits provide between 400 and 500 seeds several times each year.
The seeds are found inside the fruit capsules; they are oval in shape and dark brown in color and measure around 2 centimeters in diameter. The seeds are actually inedible when raw but they are roasted after shelling to make them not only palatable but to my mind… delicious.
The reason that sacha inchi seeds have been labeled as a superfood is their rich supply of healthy nutrients. They are very high in protein (27%) and have an oil content somewhere between 35 and 60%.
The oil is very rich in fatty acids. Between 45 and 53% of the fat content is omega-3 linolenic acid while omega-6 acid accounts for between 34 and 39% of the fat content. The seeds also contain a smaller amount of omega-9 fatty acid.
As well as being high in essential fatty acids, the seeds contain vitamin E, vitamin A carotenoids and are a great source of fiber. For vegetarians, they represent a great way of getting more fatty acids into your diet. Very few plant based foods come close to the levels supplied by sacha inchi seeds.
Medicinal Benefits of Sacha Inchi
Few studies have been done so far into the effectiveness of sacha inchi for medicinal purposes. The reason that I have taken such an interest in the food is that my wife was recently diagnosed with rheumatism.
The seeds are marketed here in Thailand as an anti-inflammatory food and my wife swears by their positive effects. They taste great, much like an almond with a delightful crisp texture and can simply be eaten as a healthy snack throughout the day.
So how exactly might these delicious seeds help your health?
1) Cholesterol Levels
Although studies into the effects of sacha inchi are at a very early stage, some of the results so far have been very encouraging. It appears that eating the nuts or using sacha inchi oil can have a positive effect in cholesterol levels.
A Peruvian study published in 2011 was done to examine the effect of the oil on lipid profiles in patients who had a high cholesterol level. Consuming sacha inchi oil over a four month period resulted in a drop in the patients’ LDL and overall cholesterol levels as well as an increase in HDL – the good type of cholesterol. (1)
Getting cholesterol levels in check can have significant effects on serious illnesses and can help reduce the risk of heart disease or stroke.
2) Heart Health
As well as its ability to improve cholesterol levels, sacha inchi can have a positive effect on the heart’s overall health. This effect owes a great deal to the presence of essential omega-3 fatty acids which are known to have cardio-protective benefits. Although not from an animal source like fish, the omega-3s that come from sacha inchi and other nuts are just as effective according to studies done on the matter. (2)
For vegans and vegetarians, sacha inchi seeds and oil offer an opportunity to get much needed essential nutrition and fatty acids from a plant source.
3) Emotional Well-being
Sacha inchi seeds are high in a compound called tryptophan which is a precursor to serotonin – the hormone that helps us to feel good. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which is believed to help calm the nerves, boost the mood and deal with anxiety, depression and stress.
The Omega-3 fatty acids found in the seeds can also help to reduce inflammation within the brain and alleviate headaches and emotional pain.
4) Brain Health
Because so much of the brain is made up of fat, it needs healthy fats of the type contained in sacha inchi to resupply the cells and help to fight against inflammation. Inflammation anywhere in the body can lead to serious illnesses and the same is true of the brain.
Inflammation within the brain can cause emotional issues like depression and memory loss as well as feelings of fatigue and pain.
5) Antioxidant Value
Unless you have been taking holiday to Pluto, you will be fully aware of the body’s need for antioxidants. Getting as many natural antioxidants into your system from natural food sources is vital to ensure overall health. They help to combat the damage done by environmental free radicals and can protect against serious illnesses from heart disease to cancer.
Antioxidants also have an anti-aging effect, not only on your internal parts but also on the skin. They can help prevent wrinkles and keep your skin looking younger for much longer.
A study published in 2011 found that sacha inchi oil is an excellent source of antioxidant phenolic compounds and gamma-tocopherol. (3)
6) Joint Health and Arthritis
Sacha inchi may be an effective food when it comes to dealing with the pain of arthritis and rheumatism. It has excellent anti-inflammatory effects and the oil can be combined with other anti-inflammatory products like turmeric and ginger for even greater benefits.