Mexican food, like the culture, is intense, spicy and full of variety, sometimes even being referred to as mestizaje, or "mixing." While corn, and particularly corn tortillas, plays a fundamental role in most all Mexican cuisine, there are many other ingredients in Mexican cooking that add not only characteristic flavors but also incredible nutrients.
Avocados are probably most well known in the States for the popular guacamole dip, but in Mexico they're also used in salads, soups and main dishes. Avocado, sometimes called the "alligator pear," (yes, avocados are a fruit) comes from the Aztec word "ahuacalt."
Health Benefits: Avocados are an excellent source of the healthy monounsaturated fat oleic acid, which may help lower cholesterol and protect against breast cancer. They also contain the highest amount of the carotenoid lutein among commonly eaten fruits, along with high amounts of other carotenoids and vitamin E, which together have been found to inhibit prostate cancer growth.
Plus, because healthy carotenoids are fat-soluble, consuming avocados, which are naturally rich in monounsaturated fat, might enhance your body's ability to absorb these healthy nutrients from other vegetables.
2. Hot Chili Peppers
Fresh and dried chili peppers are what give Mexican dishes their characteristic spice, though specific peppers are used for flavor while others are used for heat. Some popular varieties include jalapeno, poblano, serrano, guajillo, chipotle, pasilla, habanero, ancho, mulato and cascabel.
Health Benefits: Capsaicin is the active ingredient in chili peppers, giving them not only their spice but also their health benefits. In fact, the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. This spicy compound has been found to:
Provide pain relief
Prevent sinusitis and relieve congestion
Relieve intestinal disease
Protect the heart by reducing cholesterol, triglycerides and platelet aggregation
Help your body burn fat and lose weight
3. Pinto and Black Beans
Beans are another major staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine, perhaps second only to corn. While a variety of beans, like pinto, lentils, kidney beans and fava beans, are used in Mexican cooking, we're focusing on pinto and black beans because they're more common in Mexican cooking and they offer a unique nutritional benefit -- lots of antioxidants. Typically, Mexican beans are served boiled or refried.
Health Benefits: Pinto and black beans are rich in antioxidants, both making it into the top 20 antioxidant-rich foods list, according to a 2004 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
Plus, beans are high in dietary fiber, which is an excellent cholesterol fighter, and the complex carbohydrates they contain help keep your blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day -- essential for staying alert and feeling energized.
Cilantro, sometimes referred to as Mexican or Chinese parsley, has a strong flavor that people usually love or hate. In Mexican cuisine, it's a popular herb used in guacamole, salsas and sauces.
Health Benefits: Cilantro is rich in beneficial phytonutrients, flavonoids and active phenolic acid compounds, which may be responsible for many of its health benefits. Cilantro, and its seeds, have been found to help control blood sugar, lower cholesterol and fight inflammation and free radicals. Cilantro may also have antimicrobial properties.
Fresh tomatoes are the backbone of many Mexican salsas and, mixed with chilies, they're used in everything from soups and salads to sauces, meat and seafood dishes.
Health Benefits: Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a carotenoid with potent antioxidant and cancer-fighting properties. Lycopene protects cells from oxygen damage, fights colorectal, prostate, breast, endometrial, lung, and pancreatic cancers, and reduces your risk of heart disease. Studies have found that lycopene works synergistically with other phytonutrients in tomatoes to provide these benefits. Tomatoes are also an excellent source of vitamins C, A and K.
Fresh fruit is popular in Mexico, particularly for breakfast, and papaya -- said to have been called the "fruit of the angels" by Christopher Columbus -- is commonly eaten alone or as an addition to salsas and sauces.
Health Benefits: Papaya is full of antioxidants, B vitamins, folate, pantothenic acid, fiber and more, which work in synergy to provide a range of health benefits. Papaya has been found to protect against heart disease and colon cancer, fight inflammation and macular degeneration, and support the immune system.
It also contains papain, an enzyme that's good for digestion and is also used to treat sports injuries and other trauma and allergies.