Pecans and hazelnuts? Those really are nuts. But almonds and pistachios are not (they’re seeds) and peanuts are a bean (legume) which grows in the ground.

The difference between what’s a seed and a nut – botanically speaking – often differs from our culinary and cultural definition.

Is sacha inchi a nut? Technically it’s a drupe, which is a fruit that surrounds a shell with seeds inside. These seeds are the part you eat and sometimes they’re called a sacha peanut or mountain peanut, but that’s only because sacha inchi looks like a large peanut. They are a seed and one that’s totally unrelated to the legume family.

Other common drupes include peaches and cherries, but their pits are not edible. Walnuts and almonds are also drupes, but since we eat their “pits” no one calls them that.

In short, they’re most commonly called sacha inchi seeds, but if you want to call them a nut that’s fine too. It’s not like anyone abides by the definition for almonds and walnuts.

what sacha incha nuts and fresh fruit pods look like

Photo by Michael Hermann [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wiki Commons

What do they taste like?

Vega, the vegan supplement company, was the first to make these a mainstream superfood in America. Due to supply issues it appears they recently discontinued them, but for several years the Vega SaviSeed (as they called them) were sold in flavors like Cocoa Kissed and Caramelized. Their natural flavor was the least popular SaviSeed and there’s a valid reason for that.

size of saviseed next to American quarter and penny coinsWhat does sacha inchi taste and smell like?

Eventually it’s enjoyable, but your first impression of the raw won’t be the word delicious. Or at least, we haven’t heard of anyone saying that the first time their tongue touches one. It’s an acquired taste, as the flavor is very earthy and some even describe it as being fishy. Luckily the scent of it is subtle and it definitely will not give you a fishy breath!

When they’re toasted and salted, your palate will no longer notice this characteristic. They actually taste a lot like roasted peanuts. That’s why it’s so hard to find truly raw sacha inchi seeds for sale, because not many people will eat them.

More than one of us here at Superfoodly buys the raw and unsalted regularly. They’re really not that bad after you get used to them. Especially when they’re added to things like salad, oatmeal, and our healthy gluten free Chex Mix recipe. As long as other flavors are present, there’s nothing fishy going on!

The Whole Foods locations in Los Angeles used to sell the Vega SaviSeeds, but these days they don’t carry any brand of them neither the toasted or the raw. Trader Joe’s sell the toasted only in a tiny bag. If you want the bulk seeds for a decent price, you should get them online.

What is sacha inchi protein?

All of the nuts we have called out by name have over 60% of their calories coming from fat. This one is no exception.

When the fat is removed from sachi, you are left almost entirely with the amino acids. As with any plant-based protein, to separate it from the fat (oils) there is some processing involved. Manufacturers will often use organic sacha inchi powder and soak it, which makes the oil rise to the surface. That is then skimmed off and what’s left is concentrated amino acids. As with brown rice and pea protein, sacha inchi protein can even be made raw, but most brands use some heat so the process is more efficient.

Now even if you don’t buy the de-fatted flour or powder, this food is not bad for you. Take a look at the sacha inchi seeds’ nutrition facts…

nutrition facts label for sacha inchi

How many calories they have per serving – 170 – is comparable to all the other nuts we have discussed so far. Cashews are the lowest at 157. Pistachio kernels will be 159. Peanuts are 161, almonds are 163, and walnuts are higher at 185.

What is the highest protein nut?

Only hazelnuts and chestnuts are really nuts in the botanical sense, but if you extend the definition to drupes and the culinary interpretation, then the answer would be the sacha inchi. It has 8.5 grams of protein per serving of 1 ounce (28 grams). That’s 20% more than the next highest, which are peanuts at 7 grams for the same serving size. Following that it’s pistachios and almonds at 6g, cashews at 5g, and walnuts at 4.3g.

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database (1)

Sacha inchi vs. hemp protein

No one considers hemp to be a nut, which is why is we left it out of the protein comparison.

If you base the question broadly on the highest protein seeds and nuts, then you get hemp as the winner. For the same 1 ounce serving of hemp seeds, it’s 170 calories and you will get 10 grams of protein.

Greater, but is their amino acid profile better or worse?

Both are complete proteins, meaning they have the 9 essential amino acids, but hemp fails in how much it has for many of them.

Here’s a look at how much both have relative to soy protein. Phytoestrogen aside, soy is considered an excellent plant-based source for all the essentials.

Amino Acid Profile

(as milligrams of amino per gram of total protein)

Sacha inchi protein Hemp protein Soy protein Scoring pattern mg/g protein requirement (FAO/World Health Organization)
Histidine 26 5 26 15
Isoleucine 50 3 49 30
Leucine 64 14.2 82 59
Lysine 43 8.6 63 45
Sulphur amino acids (incl. methionine and cystine) 37 7.6 26 22
Aromatic amino acids (incl. phenylalanine and tyrosine) 79 18.6 90 38
Threonine 43 7.4 38 23
Tryptophan 29 1.2 13 6
Valine 40 6 50 39
Sources: Kenko International OptiPure brand of 100% sacha inchi powder, Ancient Harvest hemp protein amino acid profile, Now Foods soy protein isolate label, WHO Report: Protein and Amino Acid Requirements In Human Nutrition (2)

As you see, hemp protein is a disappointment when it comes to the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) which are valine, leucine, and isoleucine.

Sacha inchi uses for men, athletes, and bodybuilders are the clear winner. You’re benefiting with ample amounts of BCAA content, without the potential side effects of phytoestrogen that you may experience with soy protein isolate.

Health benefits

Aside from being a rich source of protein, online you will about the so-called inca nut as being good for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Candida yeast infections, and using the oil for skin and hair care. Which of these are unfounded hype and which are backed by science?

Very little research actually exists.

Plukenetia volubilis seed pod

Photo by The Lifted Lorax [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wiki Commons

That’s not really surprising, given that the Plukenetia volubilis plant grows natively in tropical South America. Most notably, it was cultivated by the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest in Peru for as long as history can tell us (pre-Inca history). These days, it’s being grown as far away as Thailand, given the new found demand for this superfood. (3)

Further research will certainly come about in future years, but as of now there are only 23 citations in medical literature out of the 27,000,000 in the PubMed database. Among those, only 3 are human clinical trials.

Is sacha inchi safe?

That’s the only thing those clinical trials were evaluating. Two looked what happened when people consumed the oil short and long term, relative to sunflower oil used as a control/placebo. (4) (5)

The third human study looked at its effect on lipid profiles when consumed for 4 months. With 10 ml (two teaspoons) taken daily, the following benefits were observed:

  • Lower triglycerides
  • Lower non-esterified fatty acids
  • Higher HDL cholesterol (the good kind)
  • Higher insulin levels

Whether or not sacha inchi oil is good for diabetics and those with cardiovascular health issues is something that needs to be studied. Ditto for Candida infections. You can’t conclude any of those things off of this pilot study, but being that it’s a cholesterol-free food, it probably is safer for you than butter and animal-derived fats. (6)

Although it has not been studied during these circumstance, it is believed to be safe for pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding. Or at least there’s no reason to doubt its safety.

Adverse reactions

From the 3 human studies using the oil, these side effects of sacha inchi were observed:

  • Nausea without vomiting
  • Belching
  • Headaches
  • Hot flashes
  • Cramps
  • Constipation

The adverse reactions were more common in women than men. They decreased significantly after 3 weeks of continued use. Since the placebo control groups (e.g. sunflower oil) produced many of the same side effects, it’s not clear what – if any – are unique to this seed oil.

Allergies

All 3 of those studies involved the oil, so it’s unknown what reactions may result from eating the whole seeds. What can be said is that having a sacha inchi allergy appears to be quite rare.  While it’s theoretically possible to be allergic to any food, not a single case study has been published to date about a reaction to this plant in from eating it.

There is one paper from 2010 about a 40 year-old woman experiencing rhinoconjunctivitis (runny nose or congestion) and bronchial asthma from inhaling the powder, but that seems to be a unique scenario. Her full-time job was to crush the seeds into powder, for extracting the oil to use in cosmetic skin care products. Yes, it may be an allergy to the Inca nut, but then again, just about any type of powder can cause those symptoms for many. (7)

Sacha inchi vs. fish oil?

seed and supplement sources of omega 3The biggest benefit of fish oil is the omega 3. It’s something that red or white meat doesn’t offer you. Sure, grass fed steak has double the content as conventional, but it’s still a pathetic 35 mg per serving. Many countries have an RDA for omega 3 that is 700% to 5,500% higher than that! (8)

Contrary to popular belief, fish don’t make omega 3. No animal does. They all get it from the plants they eat (or the animals they eat, which eat those plants). If you want to go straight to the source, you go for plant-based omega 3 sources which are ALA (α-linolenic acid).

With a 44% concentration, pure extra virgin sacha inchi oil is among the very best sources of omega 3. Flax is the biggest competitor versus it and fish oil, but there’s a major drawback… flax is the number one food source of estrogen (phytoestrogen). (9)

differences and similarities between estrogen and phytoestrogen

In fact, flax makes the second worse source – soy products – look good in comparison:

  • Flax seeds = 379,380.4
  • Soybeans = 103,920.0
  • Tofu = 27,150.1

That’s the amount of phytoestrogen in µg per 100g for each food. It’s funny how so many guys and bodybuilders rip on the idea of eating tofu, while ignoring flax… a source that’s 1,300% higher! Sacha inchi oil benefits for men are clear; it has the high omega 3 content of flax, the protein of tofu, all without the estrogenic worry.

poisonous salmonIts advantage over fish, like salmon and other omega 3-rich seafood, is that you won’t have the side effect of heavy metal dangers.

Because of mercury and others, even the U.S. federal government advises pregnant women to eat a max of 2 fish/seafood servings per week. If that includes tuna, the number goes down to only 1 serving per week. Using sacha inchi during pregnancy can be a great way to get omega 3 fatty acids, without the heavy metal health scare. (10)

The reason fish – even organic and farm raised – are so problematic is because of how their biology works. Even if they’re not contaminated, the food they eat might be and a significant portion of that will stay in their system.

The flip side of the argument is that plants provide omega 3 in the ALA form, not in the forms of EPA and DHA which is what our body uses. However just like other mammals, our body converts ALA to these final usable forms.

So yes, it does mean on an apples-to-apples comparison, you need to eat more milligrams of plant-based omega 3’s than you do for those coming from fish. But given the mercury and other health risks, wouldn’t you agree that eating these nuts and the oil made from them are a preferable alternative? You can eat them daily if you want without worry.

Which form is best?

Ultimately that depends on your goal.

The brand Shea Moisture makes sacha inchi Rescue & Recipe clarifying shampoo, curl defining shampoo, and Twist & Lock lotion. They’re bestsellers at Ulta Beauty Salon and perhaps topical applications like those are ideal for hair care.

Nature Spirit and V&M Naturals sell it as little bottles of serum. They’re both very expensive and if you do your homework, you will see some very critical reviews of Nature Spirit.

The oil benefits for skin (and hair) may be most effective by using the edible form for topical purposes.

Mixing some in with your face cream, shampoo, and conditioner is a way to reap the moisturizing properties it’s known for in South America, without needing the buy the overpriced products that contain it. On Amazon, here is a good brand of oil to get.

young shirtless male bodybuilderFor dietary purposes, whether you should use raw organic sacha inchi oil or eat the Inca nut rests upon one question…

Do you want the protein or not?

If not, you can supplement by drizzling some of the cold pressed oil on your salad or meal. You can also by gel caps containing the extract.

If you do need the protein, then it seems kind of foolish to discard it. Bodybuilders and anyone trying to bulk up their muscle should stick with eating the organic seeds in their whole food form.

They’re vegan, gluten free, paleo friendly, work for keto diets, and are fairly versatile since you can use the ground flour form to make nut butter or even sacha inchi milk. But no one sells a premade butter or milk, at least not yet. So if you’re not game for a recipe, just enjoy this novel food as nature made it.