Global Foods of Note: Sacha Inchi

Last week we hit the Summer Fancy Food Show in NYC, looking for the next big thing in eating well. Amidst the overwhelming abundance of cheeses, chocolates, preserved vegetables, and more olive oil than you can shake a branch at, a few items in the international pavilions caught our attention.  Next week we’ll be at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Chicago, doing some more taste-testing and investigating. It seems that palates are primed for new ideas and flavors from abroad – just today the New York Times ran an interesting article about the way shifting demographics are impacting the American food industry, both due to the changing face of consumers and the acculturation of flavors from immigrant populations into mainstream cuisine. Dutiful dietitians and international nutrition nerds that we are, EWG sees this as the perfect opportunity to scour the globe for healthful foods and ingredients that could be on the verge of making a culinary impact in the US. We’re excited to bring you this first installment in our mini-series on global foods of note – those that we think are trending, or perfectly positioned for a US market takeover. First stop, Peru.

Unless you’ve been eating under a rock, you’ve likely heard of Peru’s break-out ancient grain, quinoa. Packed with protein, low in calories, and easy to prepare, this grain-that’s-really-a-seed has become the darling of the food industry, from granola-munching vegans to adventure-seeking foodies. The UN has even declared 2013 the international year of quinoa. At the Fancy Food Show, quinoa made appearances in everything from pre-packaged side dishes to milk (watch out, almonds). We took some time to speak with Peruvian company Quechua Foods about concerns that have surfaced in the past few years regarding the effects that increased global demand might have on access to this staple grain in local markets.  The take-home message: yes, the price of quinoa has risen steeply, but its new-found popularity has also been a boon for local agriculture and industry, creating more opportunity for local farmers.

The new seed in town - omega-3 superstar sacha inchi.

The new seed in town – omega-3 superstar sacha inchi.

But enough about quinoa. We think Peru might have done it again with sacha inchi, another super-nutritious super-seed. Sacha inchi (aka inca inchi or inca peanut) has been cultivated for centuries in Peru, where it was historically used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. Following a flurry of research in the 1990’s and 2000’s, sacha inchi products have been making their way into kitchen pantries. What makes this oleaginous seed unique and eminently marketable is its health-promoting fatty acid profile.  Sacha inchi seeds are an incredibly rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids which have recently gained popularity for the promotion of heart health. It boasts an impressively high content of essential omega-3 fatty acids, particularly prized for their anti-inflammatory properties and association with improved blood lipid profiles. The seeds are also high in antioxidant vitamins A and E which both confer health benefits to the consumer; and protect the chemical bonds of the fatty acids themselves making sacha inchi products more shelf-stable than other unsaturated oils (many food companies accomplish this with hydrogenation, which we now know creates much vilified trans-fats). Finally, like their Peruvian cousin quinoa, the seeds are high in protein, specifically essential amino acids (now they’re just showing off). Dr. Oz named them his “best weight-loss snack” of 2010, so you know it’s only a matter of time before these guys take off.

Sacha inchi seeds make a healthful and munch-able desk snack.

Sacha inchi seeds make a healthful and munch-able desk snack.

How can you get on board for the sacha inchi trend? Each star shaped pod yields four to seven seeds, about the size of a rounded almond, that are being marketed in two forms by companies like Amazon Health Products and Agroindustrias Amazonicas.  First, they are cold-pressed, yielding oil with a lightly vegetal, beany flavor that can be realistically incorporated into salad dressings, soups, and condiments. This stands in stark contrast to fish oil, which delivers less omega 3’s and tends to cause complaints of “fish burps” despite processing, deodorizing, and encapsulation in citrus-scented pills. In our preferred preparation, the seeds are roasted whole and enjoyed as a high-protein, satiating snack. The roasted seeds are pleasantly toasty with a crisp crunch, like a cross between an almond and an edamame. In Peru, you can find these seeds naked, honey roasted, covered in chocolate, and dressed up in other tasty ways. We hope to see them on shelves closer to home soon.

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