I typed “superfood” into my browser and got 55 million ‘hits’! What’s a “superfood?” According to the Oxford Dictionary, a superfood is “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.”
But, the word is used to promote more than healthy eating — it’s being used to promote and merchandise foods, often combinations of ingredients that can be purchased in a tin or a plastic canister. You’ll see claims for “superfood supplements” that can ‘cure’ you, or ‘reduce aging’, or ‘prevent’ disease. But, when it comes to food, a single food won’t kill you, nor will it cure you.
As reported in the UK’s National Health Service online magazine ‘Choices’ (NHS Choices), “There is no official definition of a “superfood” and the EU has banned health claims on packaging unless supported by scientific evidence.
But that hasn’t stopped many food brands from funding academics to research the health benefits of their product.
The food industry wants to persuade us that eating some foods can slow down the aging process, lift depression, boost our physical ability, and even our intelligence.”
However, there are foods that are undisputedly superior in terms of their nutrient content. For example, quinoa, the ancient “super-grain” of the Andes, is super-nutritious. Quinoa is actually a seed more closely related to spinach and the sugar beet than to grains, but unlike other grains, quinoa contains all 9 essential amino acids, also known as the building blocks of protein. Like most plant foods quinoa is low in fat and is cholesterol and gluten-free, and is a rich source of fiber.
Is Chocho the next “superfood”? Score another one for the plant kingdom!
This is no new food-fad discovery, no…chocho (lupine bean, lupin), is an ancient bean of the Andes, and varieties of the Lupinus genus grow around the world. L. albus have been found throughout the Mediterranean basin: archeologists discovered lupin seeds in tombs of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. Andean pre-Incan inhabitants of present-day Peru domesticated the Latin American L. mutabilis about 1,500 years ago. In North America, native Yavapai (in what’s now Arizona) included lupins in their diet.
And chochos are outstandingly nutritious. A one-cup (166 grams) serving has about 200 calories, 26 grams of protein, about 5 grams of healthy fat, and only 16 grams of carbohydrate, 5 of them from fiber. About 40% of its calories come from protein, 40% from carbohydrate (including fiber), and just 20% from unsaturated fats, including omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Chocho beans are also a good source of calcium (8% of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI)), iron (11%), and vitamin C (3%). The flour created from the lupin bean contains more than 50% protein by weight. For vegans avoiding all animal products, lupin bean’s only limiting amino acid is methionine, and the ancients wisely served the beans with methionine-rich corn (maize) to solve that problem.
According to scientists writing in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, the ancient pre-Colombians living in the Andes were “perfectly adapted to their ecology.” However, the Spanish invaders forced natives to replace cultivation of superior quinoa and lupins with “Old World” barley and wheat.
It may be that the Spaniards had no idea that the beans were so nutritious. Or they probably didn’t pay attention to the need for careful preparation.
Absolutely, these beans must be prepared with care because they are quite high in bitter alkaloids, especially spartein. Failure to properly remove alkaloids from lupin beans can lead to lupini toxicity, manifesting as nausea, weakness, and visual disturbances. The alkaloids are water-soluble, so seeds are commonly repeatedly soaked and rinsed for days before cooking.
In the 1989 book called Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation it’s noted that “tarwi” (Quechua for lupine) is especially important for highlanders of the high Andes. Since their diets are low in protein and calories the high-quality protein and high oil content of tarwi provide a double nutritional benefit.
Since I do not eat red meat and am always eager to hear about benefits of plant foods, I was interested to read an article in El Comercio touting the “medical properties” of chocho. In excited language, the scientists described the “super-powered” nutrients in this modest Andean bean. With similar nutrition to quinoa, new findings link chocho to even more significant health benefits. Score another one for the plant kingdom!
Recent research links L. mutabilis to improvement in type 2 diabetes. In a previous article about type 2 diabetes, I described the condition as one of insulin resistance or insulin insufficiency. Scientists have shown that our Andean L. mutabilis promotes the release of insulin from the pancreas.
Chochos are a low glycemic index food (low GI), which is also linked to improvement in blood glucose. The combination of high fiber and complex carbohydrate helps lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure.
In all, research shows that lupins are excellent for all aspects of good health. The fact that they’re full of fiber and protein is extremely useful for weight management.
And the lupin plant is good for the planet. A column in Modern Farmer notes that the tarwi plant is “gorgeous,” with bright purple/blue flowers that smell like fresh honey, and they attract beneficial insects and fix nitrogen in the soil. Tarwi grows well in poor soil with low acidity and is a good pioneer plant for depleted soils.
Researchers are working on improved cultivation methods globally, and engineers have developed machinery to de-bitter tarwi seeds. Scientists are working on cross-breeding to create a lower-alkaloid variety.
One caveat about chochos — if you are allergic to peanuts. Since this legume belongs to the same plant family as peanuts, there may be a risk of anaphylaxis. If you do have a peanut allergy, beware of products labeled “gluten free” because manufacturers may add flour derived from lupins to replace wheat in flours or in other processed foods that utilize gluten as a filler or thickener. Read packaged foods labels carefully to identify “lupin” or “lupine” on the label.
I am reminded how healthy street food can be every time I walk around Cuenca. Food cart vendors sell a highly nutritious, inexpensive and delicious ceviche chocho mixture of chocho beans, tomato salsa, fresh cilantro, sometimes chopped cucumbers, and lime juice, garnished by plantain chips (chifles), popcorn (canguil) and corn nuts (tostados).
I went looking for chocho beans to prepare at home. When I didn’t see them in the dried beans section of the supermercado, I went to a favorite local expert source, the Facebook page ‘Food & Cooking In Ecuador’. This experienced bunch suggested I look for cooked and packaged chochos in the fresh produce section of TIA and Supermaxi. These nuggets are pre-soaked and ready to eat (very crunchy) — you can also cook them to make them softer. I bought a 250 gram-bag of properly processed and packaged beans at my local TIA supermercado for $0.99. The beans are pasteurized and the sell-by date tells me they’re good for a month — keep refrigerated.
Laylita.com is a good online source for Ecuadorian and Latin American recipes — her recipe for vegetarian ceviche de chochos calls for cooked beans. Find the recipe here. The website Que Vida Rica also notes that in Europe the lupin variety is known as L. albus, known as altramuz in Spain and as “lupini beans” in other countries.