Leafy greens are a great source of nutrition that have been part of human’s diets since prehistoric times. The Mayan’s connection to nature led them to discover chaya as a sustainable source of protein, vitamins, and minerals during times of scarcity. If chaya contains a far higher nutritional value than spinach and medicinal benefits, does it have the potential to become the superfood of the future?

Is Chaya the superfood of the future?

Chaya is a leafy vegetable native to the Yucatan Peninsula and the southeast area in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras. It was easy to cultivate in poor growth conditions (given its survival in the thin, limestone soil of the Yucatan Peninsula) and resistance to pests and disease — allowing the Mayans to turn to chaya as a nourishing food and miraculous medicine during extreme times of scarcity.

As meat became more accessible, chaya decreased in popularity and younger Mayan generations placed a stigma on chaya as a food of the poor. Today, chaya is most often found planted in home gardens or as an ornamental or living fence-post, rather than grown in agricultural fields, although it has the potential for agriculture.

Chaya contains a far higher nutritional value than spinach and medicinal benefits

How does chaya’s nutritional value compare to other leafy green vegetables?

According to the United States Agency of International Development, “Chaya is more nutritious than many green leafy vegetables such as spinach, chinese cabbage, and amaranth. The leaves are very high in protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.”

Chaya’s Nutritional Value (100g serving)

  • 6.2 – 7.4 g = 12-15% daily value of protein, which helps build muscles. One serving of chaya has the same amount of protein as an egg.
  • 200 – 330 mg = 20-33% daily value of calcium, which helps build strong bones. Chaya has more calcium than any other vegetable.
  • 9.3 – 11.4 mg = 42-52% daily value of iron, which is good for healthy blood and more energy. Chaya has 2x the iron as spinach.
  • 1,357 IU = 27% daily value of vitamin A, which prevents night blindness and protects the body against infections.
  • 165 – 205 mg = 275 – 372% daily value of vitamin C, which builds strong bones, protects against infections and helps the body absorb iron.
CHAYA 2 via Unsplash

Chaya is cooked with water because it contains a toxic compound, hydrocyanic glycosides, that causes tissue damage.

Hydrocyanic glycosides decreases during cooking to below the allowable levels established for lima beans, cassava, and many leafy vegetables that also contain this compound. Alternatively, it should only be eaten raw if mixed with acidic fruits like guayaba or lime.

By boiling chaya leaves in water and salt, it allows extraction of the nutrients to increase the percentage of mineral elements while decreasing moisture content.

  • Cooking time is usually 10–20 minutes
  • Chaya should not be boiled in aluminum containers; preferably in clay, pewter, or glass.B-carotene is conserved during cooking
  • Cooking chaya leaves leaches vitamin C from the leaves and transfers it to the cooking water but a mere 25 g of chaya greens with their cooking broth can provide the vitamin C daily requirement of an adult.

Mayan healers have been using chaya to create treatments that cured a broad range of health issues, which modern medicine has confirmed.

Anti-Diabetic properties – Eating a small amount of chaya after or as part of a meal will lower blood glucose levels but further research is needed to determine effective dosage.

Prevents diabetes & kidney stones – The ground or blended leaves are often made into a shake, usually with other vegetables such as calabaza. Sometimes the chaya roots are crushed and poulticed or taken orally to treat kidney disorders and back pain.

Prevents varicose veins and hemorrhoids – Oral treatment or poultices are the most commonly prescribed remedy.

Improves vision – Eating the leaves can improve vision due to its b-carotene content. The water in which the leaves are boiled can be used as an eyewash to treat vision disorders or discomfort.

Gum disease & skin disorders – Chaya is known to contain proteolytic enzymes that can have a positive effect on skin ailments. The sap of the plant is applied directly to the affected part.

Combats arthritis, muscle disorders, fatigue, or rheumatism – Rub or beat the affected part of the body with the stems or leaves of the plant. The painful stinging caused by the trichomes/spines is supposed to revive the disabled muscles and joints.

Overall positive health benefits – A recent study has found that chicks fed diets high in chaya leaf meal experienced a significant reduction in mortality and an increase in absolute heart mass, liver mass, red blood cell count. This merits further research to evaluate benefits in humans.

Other health benefits:

  • Improves blood circulation
  • Helps digestion
  • Lowers cholesterol
  • Helps in reducing weight
  • Prevents coughs
  • Augments calcium in the bones
  • Decongests and disinfects the lungs
  • Prevents anemia
  • Improves memory and brain function
  • Improves glucose metabolism and prevents diabetes

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