6 Healthy Superfoods That Originated In Latin America

Food & Nutrition Writer By Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A
Food & Nutrition Writer
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.
6 Healthy Superfoods You Didn't Know 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:

1. Cacao

Origin: Mesoamerica

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 healthprotect nerves from inflammation and injury, plus help lower blood pressure and heart disease risk.

In case you need a sweet reminder, opting for high-cocoa, ethically produced chocolate is always the best choice.

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2. Tomato

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 domesticated 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 lycopene (present in red tomatoes, in particular), which may help reduce inflammation and support the immune system.

3. Squash

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 squash is thought to have taken place somewhere in Mexico, 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.

4. Maca

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, mood, and hormone balance—among other benefits. However, more research is needed to confirm the stellar claims.

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5. Papaya

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 papayas 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 immunomodulatory agent.

What's more, it contains a digestive enzyme called papain, which helps break down proteins in the GI tract. This can help manage bloatconstipation, and overall gut health.

6. Black beans

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 content (protein, fiber, folate) makes frijoles an ideal ingredient in tasty culinary creations with potential health-related perks.

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