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Benefits of Sacha Inchi, an Omega-3 Rich "Superfood"

Sacha inchi, also known as the Inca peanut or Sacha peanut, is the seed of the Plukenetia Volubilis plant which grows in the highlands of Peru. Although this nut-like seed has been cultivated and used as a source of essential nutrients in South America for thousands of years, it is a fairly new addition to the US health food scene. The seeds, which are typically lightly roasted to bring out their nutty flavor, can be found at many health food stores in the US and UK, but you can also buy them online. Also the oil is available (look for it in the oil or superfood section of your local health food store, or order it through Amazon here). Sacha inchi oil has a mild flavor with a nutty finish which makes it ideal for salad dressings and dips.

Sacha Inchi

Regardless of whether you go for the seeds or the oil, you will be doing your body a world of good. The potential health benefits of sacha inchi, which we will get to in a moment, can be attributed to its broad nutritional profile. The seeds are rich in amino acids, antioxidants such as gamma-tocopherol (a type of vitamin E), and fiber. This South American superfood is also loaded with omega 3 fatty acids. Since our bodies do not produce these essential fatty acids naturally, we must get them from our diet in order to stay healthy.

Now, let's take a closer look at the nutritional profile and potential health benefits of sacha inchi:

1. Sacha inchi seeds and oil are excellent vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to the proper functioning of the human body. They are classified as essential fatty acids, which means that even though they are needed for human health, our bodies cannot produce them. Therefore, we must get them from our diet. For people who eat plenty of fish, this is not a problem as fatty fish is loaded with high-quality omega-3. However, if you don't eat fish, you will likely have to turn to vegan options. According to a study published in the journal Grasas y Aceites, the oil portion of sacha inchi seeds contains about 45% omega-3 fatty acids and 35% omega-6 fatty acids, making its omega 3 to 6 ratio comparable to that of flaxseed (in case you missed the memo, flaxseed is considered one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids).

2. Sacha inchi appears to have beneficial effects on the lipid profile of people with high cholesterol levels

In a pilot study from Peru, a group of researchers investigated the effects of sacha inchi oil on the lipid profiles of patients with high cholesterol levels. The results were promising: intake of sacha inchi oil for four months resulted in a decrease in total cholesterol levels and an increase in HDL cholesterol ("good" cholesterol) levels. The researchers cautioned, however, that randomized clinical trials are needed to evaluate the safety and health benefits of sacha inchi oil in people with high cholesterol levels before any firm conclusions can be made.

3. It contains omega-3 fatty acids which promote cardiovascular health

Not only does sacha inchi appear to lower cholesterol levels, it may also be good for overall cardiovascular health thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids it contains. And for those who think the famous cardioprotective effects of omega-3s only apply to animal-based sources such as fish, think again! After reviewing existing literature on the topic, researchers from Penn State came to the conclusion that ALA (that's the type of omega-3 you find in seeds and nuts) is likely just as effective in preventing cardiovascular disease as EPA and DHA which you find in fish. It is worth noting, though, that this review was supported by The California Walnut Commission.

4. Sacha inchi powder is a concentrated source of essential amino acids

Not only are sacha inchi seeds loaded with essential fatty acids, they are also packed with essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein which the body needs for building, maintaining and repairing cells and tissues and for fighting off infections. Some amino acids cannot be synthesized by the body, and you must therefore get them from your diet. Referred to as the essential amino acids, these compounds are abundant in many animal-based products, but plant-based sources of protein are typically low in at least one essential amino acid. Tree nuts, peanuts and seeds, for example, tend to be very low in the amino acid lysine. Sacha inchi seeds, along with a few other seeds such as hemp seeds, are exceptions to the rule as they contain decent amounts of lysine, along with all the other essential amino acids. Companies specialized in so-called superfood powders have taken advantage of that fact, and sacha inchi protein powder is now available in many health food stores as well as online (you can order it through Amazon here, or here if you live in the UK).

5. Sacha inchi seeds and oil contain powerful antioxidants

Antioxidants are crucial to your health, as they are believed to help control how fast you age by combating free radicals, unstable molecules that are at the heart of many age-related health problems. Sacha inchi seeds, as well as oil derived from them, have been shown to contain compounds with antioxidant properties. According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, for example, sacha inchi oil is a good source of phenolic compounds (6.2 mg/100 g of oil expressed as GAE) as well as gamma-tocopherol (1.257 g/kg), a type of vitamin E with strong antioxidant properties.

6. Omega-3s and gamma-tocopherol, abundant in sacha inchi, have strong anti-inflammatory properties

Aside from acting as an antioxidant, gamma-tocopherol also has strong anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, both test tube and animal studies suggest that gamma-tocopherol has far more powerful anti-inflammatory properties than its cousin alpha-tocopherol, another type of vitamin E. But the high amount of gamma-tocopherol in this South American superfood is by no means the only reason why people with certain inflammatory conditions might benefit from adding it to their diets—also omega-3s have strong inflammatory properties.

1. B. Hamaker et al (1992). Amino acid and fatty acid profiles of the Inca Peanut (Plukenetia Volubilis). Cereal Chemistry. 69, 461-463.
2. L. Gutierrez et al (2011). Chemical composition of Sacha Inchi (Plukenetia volubilis L.) seeds and characteristics of their lipid fraction. Grasas y Aceites, Vol 62, No 1.
3. F. Garmendia (2011). Effect of sacha inchi oil (plukenetia volubilis l) on the lipid profile of patients with hyperlipoproteinemia. Revista Peruana de Medicina Experimental y Salud Publica, vol.28 n.4.
4. J. Fleming and P. Kris-Etherton (2014). The Evidence for alpha-Linolenic Acid and Cardiovascular Disease Benefits: Comparisons with Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid. Advances in Nutrition, vol. 5: 863S-876S.
5. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, accessed in May 1, 2016. Nutrient Data Laboratory, Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center.
6. C. Fanali et al (2011). Chemical Characterization of Sacha Inchi (Plukenetia volubilis L.) Oil. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 59, 13043-13049.
7. S. Devaraj and M. Traber M (2003). Gamma-tocopherol, the new vitamin E? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 77(3):530-1.
8. Q. Jiang et al (2000). Gamma-tocopherol and its major metabolite, in contrast to alpha-tocopherol, inhibit cyclooxygenase activity in macrophages and epithelial cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 10;97(21):11494-9.

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