6 Healthy Superfoods That Originated In Latin America
Pulsating with deep-rooted history and tradition, Latin American food has origins that reflect its narrative, its people, and its shared experiences. Each region has a multifaceted culinary story to tell, intensely imbued by the flavors, ingredients, and recipes derived from a rich cultural lineage.
Latin American food is indeed vibrant and flavorful, and the origins can also tell us a lot about its society—both in the past and the present. Fortunately, the following healthful staples have not only been a key part of Latin America's ancestral gastronomy, but they're also prevalent and crucial in today's cuisine. Let's take a look at the background and benefits of six healthy superfoods with Latin American origins:
Scientific name: Theobroma cacao
Healthy Latin-Inspired Recipes: Cacao Elixir, Cacao Mug Cake
The world-acclaimed cacao (or chocolate) we consume today looks radically different from the roasted and fermented one Aztecs and Mayans drank hundreds of years ago. Popular among Mesoamerican cultures, these godly beans were mostly consumed by the elite—reserved for special occasions, festivals, and religious rituals, such as the end of the Mayan calendar. The cacao beans were also used as currency in commercial trade, or as dowry in wedding ceremonies.
Cacao's ancient, aphrodisiac, and medicinal praise became well known to the Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century, who eventually spread this high-priced crop across the rest of Europe.
Today, most chocolate is consumed in sweetened, butter, or powder versions with added flavoring or fillings. Modern research has also found that cacao is rich in minerals, flavonoids, and other health-supporting antioxidants. Studies have shown that cacao may help support brain health1, protect nerves from inflammation and injury, plus help lower blood pressure and heart disease risk2.
In case you need a sweet reminder, opting for high-cocoa, ethically produced chocolate is always the best choice.
Origin: South America
Scientific name: Solanum lycopersicum
Healthy Latin-Inspired Recipes: Warming Tomato + Red Pepper Soup, Thyme + Tomate Eggs
All species of tomatoes derive from the same nightshade family: Solanaceae. Thought to have originated in the high Andes before moving northward (though its journey from wild to domesticated3 is debatable), tomatoes have been a crucial source of nutrients for many civilizations since ancient times. After arriving in Mexico in the 16th century, Spaniards (again) took these fruits back to Europe, ultimately transforming the way the entire world ate.
Nowadays, tomatoes are a kitchen staple in most cuisines, with many varieties (cherry, heirloom, grape, or green, to name a few) produced and consumed globally. They are celebrated for being rich in vitamin C, along with the antioxidant lycopene4 (present in red tomatoes, in particular), which may help reduce inflammation and support the immune system.
Origin: Mexico and Central America
Scientific name: Cucurbita
Healthy Latin-Inspired Recipes: Versatile Roasted Squash, Breakfast Squash + Apple Bake
The evolution of wild and domesticated squash5 is thought to have taken place somewhere in Mexico6, dating back at least 8,000 years. From there, it was spread to Central and South America. Next to corn and beans, nutrient-rich squash has been a ubiquitous, widely cultivated crop since Mesoamerican times. Today, myriad squash varieties abound—thanks to squash's ornamental, texture, and flavor purposes. In Costa Rica, we like chayote.
Origin: South America
Scientific name: Lepidium meyenii
Healthy Latin-Inspired Recipes: Salted Maca Caramel, Maca Bliss Balls
Thought to have been cultivated for at least 2,000 years, this Andean powerhouse has been a venerable staple for culinary and medicinal purposes alike—including a stamina support for Incan warriors.
A nutritionally dense plant, maca powder and supplements have gained enormous popularity within the health and wellness realm. That's because maca is rich in fiber, vitamin C, fatty acids, and other vital nutrients—it's also considered an adaptogen, a unique group of herbal ingredients used to support the health of your adrenal system. Research has linked this superfood to supporting libido, mood7, and hormone balance8—among other benefits. However, more research is needed to confirm the stellar claims9.
Origin: Central American
Scientific name: Carica papaya
Healthy Latin-Inspired Recipes: Tropical Feel-Good Smoothie
Known to the Mayans as "the tree of life," papayas have been widely used for healing and nutrition purposes since Mesoamerican times (leaves, fruit, seeds, bark, and all). Even though the exact origins of domestic papayas10 is still up for debate, researchers do know that papayas were cultivated by Indigenous people of Mexico and Central America. This led to larger, plumper fruits, which are perhaps closer to the edible papayas we know today.
After their historic voyage through the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, and beyond—papayas are now grown extensively across most tropical, warm regions of the world. Further, papaya's leaf extract has been praised as an anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, and immunomodulatory11 agent.
What's more, it contains a digestive enzyme called papain, which helps break down proteins in the GI tract. This can help manage bloat, constipation, and overall gut12 health.
Origin: Central and South America
Scientific name: Phaseolus vulgaris
Healthy Latin-Inspired Recipes: Black Bean + Sweet Potato Soup, Three Simple Black Bean Patties
Like the other Latin foods above, black beans have been a staple for thousands of years, thanks to their high-protein and fiber-rich nutrition profile.
Genetic traits and fossil dates suggest these mighty beans originated in Mesoamerica before they were domesticated between 5000 and 2000 BCE. Beans belong to the third-largest plant family worldwide, the Fabaceae, and are also a must-have ingredient in most Latin-inspired gastronomies (think black bean tamales or coconut-infused rice and beans). Also, their nutritional content13 (protein, fiber, folate) makes frijoles an ideal ingredient in tasty culinary creations with potential health-related perks14.
Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A, is a journalist, IIN graduate integrative health coach, E-RYT 500 lead yoga teacher, and 500-Hour certified Pilates instructor from San José, Costa Rica. She received her master's degree in communication and journalism from The University of New Mexico, emphasizing well-being, sustainable fashion, health communication research, and graduating Summa Cum Laude. A former professional dancer, she's earned multiple academic and accredited certifications in performance design, positive psychology, doula training, entrepreneurship, digital marketing, mindfulness, innovation leadership, and integrative health. Her work has appeared at top consulting brands and organizations across Latin American and the US, including Byrdie and Albuquerque The Magazine. She currently lives between Costa Rica and New Mexico.