Chaya, A Super Green of The Mayan Diet : Mayan Diet Series Part I from Dr. J.E. Williams

Wednesday Apr 27 | BY |
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The levels of Chaya leaf nutrients are two to threefold greater than most edible leafy green vegetables.

Resident Medical Authority: J. E. Williams, OMD, FAAIM

I’ve been looking for dietary longevity secrets from around the world for forty years and have eaten all kinds of exotic foods, but I have yet to find a “secret sauce” that does it all. What I’ve found, however, is that traditional cultures and indigenous peoples show a strong interest in recipes that keep one fit, disease-free, and promote healthy aging.

Recently, I returned to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to see if I could find any special foods the Mayans used for vigor. After all, they built the world’s most extensive system of stone pyramids about one thousand years ago; so, they must know something.

I found several plants that fit my requirements, but Chaya or “Mexican tree spinach” is the one I found most interesting. Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), Chayamansa in Mayan, is cultivated extensively for use as a food and medicine. It is a bush with succulent stems that exudes a milky sap when cut. The leaves are the part used for food. A Chaya bush can grow to be ten feet tall, but is usually pruned to about six feet for easier leaf harvest.

A popular leafy vegetable in Yucatan cuisines, Chaya is used like spinach, but it’s stronger tasting. The leaves must be cooked before being eaten, as the raw leaves contain a glucoside with toxic cyanide. When cooked the cyanide is volatilized as Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) so Chaya can be safely consumed. However small amounts of the raw leaf are safe to eat, and a little Chaya juice can be used to make a fresh green drink blended with orange and pineapple juice.

According to the National Institute of Nutrition in Mexico City, Chaya has the following properties:

• Improves blood circulation
• Helps digestion
• Improves vision
• Prevents varicose veins and hemorrhoids
• Lowers cholesterol
• Helps reduce weight
• Prevents coughs
• Augments calcium in the bones
• Decongests and disinfects the lungs
• Prevents anemia
• Improves memory and brain function
• Combats arthritis
• Improves glucose metabolism and prevents diabetes

Nutritional analysis has shown Chaya richer in iron than spinach and is a good source of potassium and calcium. Chaya leaf is high in protein (5.7%), and contains crude fiber (1.9%), calcium (199.4 mg/100 g), potassium (217.2 mg/100 g), iron (11.4 mg/100 g), vitamin C (164.7 mg/100 g), and carotene (0.085 mg/100 g). The levels of Chaya leaf nutrients are two to threefold greater than most edible leafy green vegetables, and like spinach it provides appreciable amounts of several essential mineral macronutrients necessary for human health.

Chaya is not yet readily available in health food stores. But, it’s easy to grown in the southern latitudes of the United States.

Remember that although it’s common practice in Mexico to use small amounts of the leaves raw in agua fresca, a tea-like cold drink don’t over consume the raw leaves. Chaya contains cyanogenic glycosides, a source of cyanide poisoning, so it should not be eaten raw. Boiling leaves for at least 5 minutes releases the cyanide and makes the leaves safe to eat.

Though Chaya may not be a miracle plant or the “secret sauce” of longevity, I rank it in the top ten green superfoods that can contribute to a plant-based diet.

We want to know your thoughts: Have you ever tried chaya?


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  1. roni says:

    further south in Costa Rica, we call it chicaskil. same plant. gently sauteed with garlic in olive or coconut oil, and rolled in a tortilla = heaven.

  2. I am so lucky I have a new chaya plant that a friend gave me, it’s already growing in my garden.

  3. casey says:

    hmm i’m gona try to find some for my garden

  4. PE says:

    My data on chaya don’t support it as a superfood. It rates a 52, or using the Purdue data that Dr Williams uses, 56, on the scale.
    By the way, it MUST be eaten cooked.

  5. Joel Brown says:

    never heard of it, thanks, its an easy word to remember!

  6. Lee goldsmith says:

    Where do you get Chaya leaves?

  7. AmandaS says:

    Does anyone in Australia know if we have it, or where it can be obtained?

  8. Kathy Hall says:

    Chaya grows like a weed here in Puerto Rico. A broken branch stuck in the ground will grow. It will grow in Florida too. I throw chopped leaves in soups and will try some in a pot of beans today!

  9. Any idea if this causes any allergies? My son is allergic to cotton fibre and sesame seeds, and has a persistent dry cough since I started giving him chaya leaves

  10. Denise says:

    We grow it in our community in Florida … We use like spinach: omelette,stews and veggie lasagna!

  11. italia says:

    I just ate chiya the other day because my friend next door has a big tree..she cut the leaf in half to not get the stem that is hot into the drink..then she used the raw leaves with a whole lemon cut in half and pure water in a blender then put it thru a strainer into a glas and it was like lemonade but even fresher tasting..I love your article on this tree..thank you…one thing you need to know .if you go near the tree by mistake and it touches your arm you break out with red spots or it sort of stings you ..really weird hee hee I love the tree but i am careful now..

  12. cathy says:

    Having visited the Yucatan many times, I have found chaya aqua fresca. It is the most refreshing drink I have ever had. I ordered a chaya tree and now have 3 cuttings and 1 tallish tree growing. I want to keep the tree more bushy to have more leaf production but am ignorant as to how and when to prune. Also, my chaya aqua fresca isn’t as delicious as the ones I tried in Mexico. Any suggestions?

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