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?
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 on 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
Sacha Inchi Oil and Skin Health
Sacha inchi oil could prove very useful for general skin care and also for treating certain inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis and eczema.
Sacha inchi is a light oil that spreads easily and is able to lubricate and moisturize the skin. The oil is rich in omega-3 which is easily absorbed through the skin. As our body gets more of this fatty acid, the skin will begin to look and feel more radiant. The skin will become less dry and start to feel softer. Because of the vitamin E content of the oil, your complexion may even become lighter with long term application.
Sacha inchi oil has a low comodogenic rating and its anti-inflammatory nature makes it suitable for treating conditions like acne, psoriasis and eczema. While the oil is not antimicrobial, the omega-3 it contains can help inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory compounds in the skin.
Sacha Inchi Oil and Hair Health
Sacha inchi can also be applied to your hair to nourish and condition your locks. The oil is rich in nutrients like vitamin E, which can help add life and luster to your hair and prevent it from becoming dry and frizzy. Sacha inchi oil may also protect the hair from sun damage and help untangle the hair.
How to Take Sacha Inchi
You can simply nibble on the seeds throughout the day if you are feeling peckish. They are delicious and healthy and better for you and your kids than many modern and unhealthy snacks.
You can easily crush the seeds and add them to your smoothie recipes. Alternatively, you can add them to your oatmeal, cereal or yogurt to enhance the flavor and add valuable nutrition.
Sacha Inchi oil can also be applied topically to treat the skin and the hair.
Sacha Inchi is also readily available these days in the form of a delicious, healthy tea.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Sacha Inchi good for?
Sacha inchi has not yet been extensively studied but it contains various important nutrient including omega-3 fatty acid and omega-6 fatty acid while it is high in protein. Sacha inchi has a number of potential medicinal properties including antioxidabnt and anti-inflammatory actions. Preliminary studies suggest that sacha inchi could help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure levels. It may also help treat inflammatory conditions like arthritis. Sacha inchi can also be applied topically to help treat the skin.
Is Sacha Inchi oil good for hair?
Sacha inchi oil is sometimes used to nourish and moisturize the hair. It is rich in fatty acids like Omega-3 and 6 as well as vitamin E, all of which can help condition the hair and moisturize the scalp.
Is Sacha Inchi a nut?
Sacha inchi is often referred to as a nut. However, despite being called Inca peanuts, they are techinically not nuts but seeds.
What does Sacha Inchi taste like?
Roasted sacha inchi seeds are edible and quite delicious. They have a woody flavor similar to a roasted peanut . You can eat these seeds alone or add them to several recipes. You can even crush them and add them to your yogurts, cereal, oatmeal or smoothie recipes.
Side Effects and Precautions
When they are roasted, sacha inchi is generally regarded as safe to consume in food quantities. However, there is very little known about the long-term effects of eating large amounts of the seeds. We also have very little data on the safety of using sacha inchi in supplementary form.
The research done to date revealed that some people using sacha inchi oil may feel nauseous at first while increased HDL cholesterol levels have also been recorded.
Some people may be allergic to the seeds. If you have any type of allergic reaction, you should stop eating the seeds immediately.
According to studies sacha inchi powder is a rich source of tryptophan. This means it could interact with medications and supplements which increase tryptophan or serotonin levels. (including antidepressants). This could increase the risk of a rare condition known as ‘serotonin syndrome.
You should avoid using raw sacha inchi leaves and seeds since they contain certain plant toxins including naturally occuring saponins and alkaloids. It is always advised to roast the seeds before eating them to reduce the levels of these toxins.
Sacha inchi seeds and oils are often marketed as a superfood but it is far too early to recommend their use to treat any specific health conditions.
Early research suggests that eating the seeds as part of an overall, healthy diet may confer some health benefits including heart health and reducing cholesterol levels.
Although sacha inchi is high in omega-3 fatty acid, it is still necessary for the body to convert alpha-linolenic acid to EPA and DHA. Foods rich in both EPA and DGA include oily types of fish like herring, mackerel, sardines and salmon.
While sacha inchi is considered safe in food doses, we do not have much information regarding its use as a supplement. If you are in any doubt at all, speak to your doctor to check whether a supplement is a good choice for you.