11 Fascinating Mexican Superfoods, From Avocado to Amaranth | Yummly

11 Fascinating Mexican Superfoods, From Avocado to Amaranth

Many of these powerhouse ingredients have been used for centuries in Mexican dishes. Read about their origins and health benefits, learn helpful tips for preparing them, and discover delicious new recipes!

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Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Mexico knew a thing or two about superfoods before the term became trendy among U.S. health fanatics. Various indigenous ingredients have been staples in traditional Mexican dishes for centuries. This includes everything from chocolate and nopales, to frijoles and jitomates. Thankfully, many have crossed both cultural and physical borders and made their way into grocery stores and restaurants around the globe so that these pre-Hispanic ingredients can be enjoyed by the masses.  

Below you’ll find a few of my faves — some of which you may recognize, as well as others that may be new to you. With each ingredient I hope you learn something new, whether it be a fun fact or a delightful recipe that highlights a superfood that’s interesting to you!

Jump ahead to:

Tomatoes >>

Avocado >>

Chia seeds >>

Chayote >>

Nopales (cactus paddle) >>

Amaranth >>

Spirulina >>

Aloe vera >>

Beans >>

Cacao >>

Tomatillos >>

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Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

The English word tomato comes from the Spanish word, tomate, derived from tomatl in Nahuatl, and this pre-Columbian food was believed to be growing in Aztec emperor Moctezuma’s gardens, which piqued Spanish colonizer Hernán Cortez’s interest when the two met.

Tomatoes are the major dietary source of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. They are also a great source of vitamin C, potassium, folate, and vitamin K. Today, tomatoes come in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes, and are the key ingredient in sauces, salsa, and salads throughout the world.

Fun fact: The French referred to the tomato as pommes d'amour, or love apples, as they thought them to have aphrodisiacal properties.

Try these tomato recipes:


Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Fresh avocados have always been one of my favorite pre-Hispanic superfoods. Archeologists found evidence that wild avocados were consumed approximately 10,000 years ago in central Mexico and researchers believe that their cultivation dates back 5,000 years.

This fun fruit (yes, this, too, is a fruit!) has long been part of the Mexican diet. Avocados are considered a nutrient-dense superfood, which means that they provide significant amounts of vitamins and minerals with relatively few calories and contain monounsaturated “good” fats, making them heart-healthy, too. They can be eaten alone or used in a variety of tasty recipes, from soups and salads, to salsas, ceviche, and smoothies. 

Fun fact: Used by Aztecs as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, the fruit got its name from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl, which means "testicle." To the Aztecs, avocados, which grow in pairs, were symbols of love and fertility.

Try these avocado recipes:

Chia seeds

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Chia seeds are a tiny seed that pack a huge punch! They come from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, which is a member of the mint family, and were consumed as early as 3,000 BC by the Aztecs and Mayans for their healing powers. 

Since chia seeds are neutral in flavor, they can be added to virtually any recipe and do not need to be ground (like flaxseed) to enjoy their full benefits. Given that they are one of the most nutrient rich foods in the world, why wouldn’t you add these little seeds to drinks, desserts, and anything else you’re whipping up? 

Chia seeds aren’t just good for you on the inside — they contain fiber, calcium, phosphorus, Omega-3s and are high in protein — but can also be used as a skin-hydrating treatment, too! Just mix some seeds with coconut oil and lemon juice for a moisturizing mask.

Fun fact: Mexico and Guatemala were the birthplace of chia. Today it is grown in several other countries including Argentina, Ecuador, and Paraguay, to name a few. 

Try these chia seed recipes:


Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

A chayote [chai – oh – teh], also referred to as chayote squash or chayotli in Nahuatl, reminds me of a delicious cross between a zucchini and a potato and was initially cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayans. Health fanatics will be happy to hear that they contain no cholesterol or fat and are extremely low in calories. They are high in potassium and provide a healthy dose of other vitamins and nutrients.

Regrettably, they are a rare find on menus here in the U.S., but are commonly served on plates in their native Mexico. Chayotes can be enjoyed raw or cooked and are delicious when transformed into a soup or side.

Fun fact: A chayote’s flowers, pits, leaves, and tendrils are all edible. Tea made from its leaves is reported to contain diuretic properties and help treat kidney disorders, hypertension, and help support cardiovascular health.  

Try these chayote recipes:

Nopales (cactus paddle)

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Nopales may look intimidating due to their prickly exterior, but we all know that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. The cactus paddle’s thorny exterior conceals a very rich and nutritious interior that offers health benefits galore.

Dishes with cactus paddles, or nopales, can be found on restaurant menus throughout Mexico and are growing in popularity here in the U.S. They are believed to aid in digestion, help regulate blood glucose and insulin levels, and have natural anti-inflammatory properties, among other health-related benefits. Incorporate these greens into your daily diet and say adios to cholesterol, indigestion, and inflammation. 

Fun fact: In the upper part of the stalks of nopales, you will find red, purple, and yellow flowers along with vibrant pink or green tunas, or prickly pears, which are a delicious cactus fruit with crunchy seeds.

Try these nopal recipes:


Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

An 8,000-year-old pseudocereal, amaranth is considered a seed, not a grain, that is indigenous to Mesoamerica. Once cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayans who recognized its nutritional and ceremonial importance, it is a symbol of remarkable resilience. 

When consumed as a food, amaranth touts a number of health benefits and is rich in fiber, protein, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and manganese. It is also quite versatile and can be used to top yogurt and fruit, as a breading for frying, or baked into breads and used in place of (or together with) oats for homemade granola and bars.

Fun fact: Despite attempts in the 16th century by Spaniards to extinguish amaranth's cultivation — they believed that the indigenous community’s connection to the seed undermined Christianity — farmers continued growing it in secret and preserved the seeds, which continue to grow throughout modern-day Mexico. 

Try these amaranth recipes:


Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

During the 16th century, the blue-green algae known as spirulina was a source of food for the Aztec who recognized its nutritional benefits.

It is believed to be high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties and promote a number of health benefits including decreased inflammation, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and protecting against a multitude of diseases including cancer. I absolutely love mixing blue spirulina into smoothies and yogurt because it creates the most vibrant hue of blue! 

Fun fact: Today, blue and green spirulina powders are becoming a common ingredient in juices, smoothies, shakes, health snacks, baked goods, desserts, and even kombucha. This seaweed was once cultivated on the lake Tenochtitlán (where Mexico City was founded). 

Try these spirulina recipes:

Aloe vera

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Aloe vera has been used for medicinal purposes in several cultures for millennia in Greece, Egypt, India, Mexico, Japan, and China. While the first written reports date back as far as 6,000 years and tie the plant to ancient Egypt, sábila (aloe vera) has long been a staple in Mexican gardens, kitchens, and culture. 

Growing up, we always had an aloe vera plant growing somewhere in our garden and anytime we cut or burned ourselves, someone would squeeze the plant’s refreshing pulp onto our wounded skin. Nowadays it’s available in grocery stores and sought after for its positive effects on the digestive system in both capsule and pill form. I continue to slather the fresh pulp onto my face and incorporate it into jugos and smoothies!

Fun fact: The Mayans referred to the aloe vera plant as the “fountain of youth.”

Try these aloe vera recipes:


Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Along with corn and chile peppers, beans are one of three Mexican food staples that have been part of the Mesoamerican diet for thousands of years — well before the arrival of Spanish invaders. The most popular varieties in Mexico include pinto, Peruano, Mayocoba, and Flor de Mayo, and black beans.

These versatile legumes can be eaten as a side, cooked into soups and stews, and refried, and then used as a filling or topping in some of the most popular Mexican dishes.  

Fun fact: Black beans in particular offer a unique protein-fiber combination that cannot be found in meat or any other food group.

Try these bean recipes:


Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Modern day chocolate is derived from the cacao tree, which is as old as the ages and was first cultivated in Mesoamerica. Cacao, also known as chocolatl or xocolatl and referred to as the “food of the gods,” was considered to be an aphrodisiac by the Aztecs. This might help explain why Moctezuma, Aztec emperor from 1502 to 1520, reportedly consumed 50 chalices of chocolate daily during his reign.

Cacao beans once served as a form of currency in Mesoamerica and in its raw, powder form, is rich in protein, calcium, carotene, zinc, magnesium, and is the highest plant-based source of iron known to man. 

Fun fact: National Chocolate Day is October 28!

Try these cacao recipes:


Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

The tomatillo, or "little tomato" in Spanish, is another Mexican staple that is believed to have been first domesticated by the Aztecs in central Mexico. Its flavor is reminiscent of an underripe tomato combined with the tartness of a key lime. The green tomato-like fruits wrapped in a papery husk contain vitamins A, C, and K, as well as niacin, or B3.

Tomatillos are typically charred or boiled and blended with chiles to create vibrant green salsas and sauces, and they can also be eaten raw, in salads and ceviche. 

Fun fact: Researchers dated a native tomatillo plant fossil to a whopping 52 million years ago. Surprisingly, this plant was found in Patagonia, at the very southern tip of Argentina. During human civilization's timeline, the tomatillo plant first appeared further north, in Mesoamerica.

Try these tomatillo recipes:

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