Natural, native and healthy: Latin America’s rising star superfoods

3 Jul 2020

From açaí to quinoa, chia to maqui, native Latin American superfoods give products a healthy, wholefood halo– and the region has plenty of undiscovered superfoods waiting to be commercialized, says one expert.

In a region with such varied landscapes and biodiversity, it is not surprising that some of the most popular superfoods sold around the world are native to Latin America. But how are these ingredients perceived among Latin American consumers?

Natural, native and healthy: Latin America’s rising star superfoods

“Although I don’t see the term ‘superfood’ appearing here as often as it appears in the US, these ingredients have become quite common in food recipes in Latin America and some, such as quinoa and chia, have almost become a kind of staple ingredient in categories like bread,” said Cristina Leonhardt, head of marketing and innovation at Brazilian food consultancy Tacta Food School. “So, we can assume that the Latin American consumer knows these ingredients and is willing to try them or even expect them to be present in some foods.”

In some Latin American countries, the superfood in question may be anchored in culinary traditions and consumers might not be used to seeing it in packaged foods. In Ecuador, for instance, the nutritious pseudo-grain quinoa is used almost exclusively in soup.

When Ecuadorian company LiveKuna first launched its products, it invested in a social media campaign to inform people about other ways to incorporate quinoa and chia seeds in the diet – such as its puffed snacks and breakfast cereals.

According to Leonhardt, superfood ingredients enjoy a kind of generalized health halo rather than close associations with specific nutrients or health claims.

“In Brazil, at least, I don’t see that these ingredients are used because of some specific nutrient, but more because the whole ingredient is associated with healthier eating,” she said. “Açaí has long been associated with a healthy, sports lifestyle and the fact that it is packed with antioxidants doesn’t hurt but I don’t see that as the major driver in its consumption here.”
Finding the next superfood superstar

Do Latin American consumers prefer local or native superfoods that they already know, such as açaí in Brazil or maqui berries in Chile, or is there demand for new, emerging superfoods?

This is ‘the million-dollar question’, said Leonhardt.

“Some local ingredients have become very common in their countries but we can also see that there is room for new good-for-you, superfood ingredients from other regions [such as] moringa, green tea and goji berry,” she said.

“We should not forget that we host, as a region, the biggest diversity in the world, much of it unknown. So, my bet is that there is still a lot to be found and researched in the Amazon or the Cerrado region.”

Many of the fruits, nuts, and seeds that Leonhardt namechecked as potential superfoods from Brazil are unheard of elsewere, from pequi, a pulpy orange fruit that resembles mangosteen to licuru, a native Brazilian coconut; or from jabuticaba, a grape-like fruit, to babassu, an oil-rich palm nut with a slight almond flavour.

To increase consumer acceptability, companies could blend new, unknown ingredients with more established ones.
Premium condiment maker SoulBrasil works with indigenous communities to source the native Amazonian ingredients for its jams, chili sauces and fruit-based vinegars. It blends well-known superfoods such as açaí, guarana, acerola, and mango with lesser-known ingredients such as tonka bean, murupi pepper, and jiquitaia pepper.
Sustainable sourcing

In all cases, responsible and sustainable sourcing must be a key priority for suppliers and manufacturers alike, Leonhardt said.

“There’ll be no escape from sustainability. [It] will have to be considered inside the R&D processes, if it is not already,” she told the Ingredients Network. “So, even though the concern is still growing, we should already be sourcing our ingredients from sustainable supply chains – which is even more important for any ingredient attached to a traditional community, such as the case for açaí and baru nuts.”

Some Latin American superfood start-ups have put sustainability at the heart of their business models.

Rio de Janeiro-headquartered company Juçaí makes an organic sorbet using berries from the juçara palm (Euterpe edulis Mart.), a tree native to the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest. The juçara palm is endangered because its heart is considered a delicacy but once the heart is harvested, the palm dies.

By paying fruit pickers more for the berries than they would receive for the heart, distributing palm seeds to farmers for free, and investing in a reforestation programme, the B Corp-certified company aims to get the juçara palm off the endangered list within a decade – and dethrone açaí as Brazil’s favourite superberry.

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