Health Benefits of Horchata de Chufa


Health Benefits and Its Relation to the Prevention of Digestive Diseases

By Miguel Bixquert Jiménez

Professor in the Medicine Department at the University of Valencia and Head of the Digestive Unit at Hospital Arnau Vilanova in Valencia

Introduction

Refreshing, hydrating drinks can be grouped into two categories:

1)   Alcoholic drinks, such as: beer, cider, white wine, cava and sangria.

2)   Non-alcoholic drinks, which, in turn, can be classified into different types.

The consumption of alcoholic drinks (either for stimulating, relaxing, disinhibiting or refreshing purposes) in Spain has become a major problem, since Spain is the fourth largest consumer of alcohol in Western Europe. For this reason, it seems appropriate to find other refreshing drinks as an alternative. Of course, I do not oppose to a responsible consumption of wine or beer during mealtimes, since both have health benefits: wine contains polyphenol, which have antioxidant properties, and beer contains minerals and vitamins, such as folic acid. However, the consumption of alcoholic drinks during meals to quench one’s thirst can easily reach the alcohol abuse threshold established by the WHO, especially in extremely hot regions: 40 grams/day (three glasses of beer or two glasses of wine) for men and 25 grams/day (two glasses of beer or a glass and a half of wine) for women.

There are two types of non-alcoholic refreshing drinks commonly available in stores:

1) Caffeine-containing beverages, such as energy drinks and carbonated cola drinks.

2) Fruit-juice-based drinks, either carbonated or still (8-10% maximum fruit juice content).

Caffeine-containing drinks are usually high in calories (unless they are diet), contain an excessive amount of caffeine, too much sodium (which leads to an increase in blood pressure if consumed regularly) and contains a large amount of phosphoric acid (which disturbs the balance between calcium/phosphorus and can cause osteoporosis). They also contain stimulating substances, such as caffeine, which can result in psycho-physical addiction high blood pressure and hyperacidity (since caffeine is an excitosecretory substance), which can cause indigestion or heartburn due to the regurgitation of gastric acid into the oesophagus.

Fruit-juice-based drinks provide fewer calories, but also contain a large amount of sodium. If they are carbonated, they can lead to digestive disorders due to the increase in gas production and accumulation in the gastrointestinal tract, which causes eructation, abdominal distension, flatulence or meteorism. Furthermore, these kind of drinks do not provide any nutritional value, since they are very low in vitamin C (they only contain a minimal amount of fruit juice), their carbohydrate content comes from added sweeteners, and mineral content is unbalanced (they contain a high amount of sodium and potassium) and they barely contain proteins and lipids. Also, these are artificial drinks, which have preservatives, colourants and flavourings.

One of the most traditional drinks in Spain, especially in the Mediterranean area, is Horchata or chufa drink: a non-artificial, energetic, refreshing drink with digestive properties and health benefits, which have been highlighted for many hundreds of years. Horchata is a non-alcoholic beverage which provides a high nutritional value, since it contains carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, several minerals and vitamins and is also cholesterol free. Below are some of the advantages that Horchata has over non-alcoholic soft drinks:

1)  Horchata does not contain caffeine or any other stimulating substance, so children, pregnant women and elderly people are able to drink it.

2) It does not contain phosphoric acid, so it doesn’t take calcium from the bones nor does it affect your teeth.

3) If Horchata is not sweetened, it is lower in calories than regular sweetened soft drinks. In addition its calorie content is not empty as Horchata contains nutrients which soft drinks lack.

4) Horchata has digestive properties due to its amino acid and starch content, which is not only stringent (the same as rice drink), but also works as soluble fibre, since almost 20% of it is not absorbed by the small intestine. Horchata’s content of enzymes such as amylase and lipase facilitates normal digestion.

In order to confirm all these facts, it would be appropriate to verify Horchata’s beneficial health claims and the lack of non-beneficial characteristics in its content by using a proven and suitable methodology, as has been done by Doctor Rosaura Farré in her laboratory. In other words, an analysis of Horchata’s real properties based on its components and its different types: natural fresh Horchata, artificial Horchata, non-sweetened Horchata and sweetened Horchata.

According to the Joan Corominas’ definition included in his Diccionario Etimológico de la lengua castellana (Etymological Dictionary of the Spanish Language), Horchata comes from the Latin word Hordeata, which means “made with barley”. However, Horchata is also a Mozarabic term from Valencian origin used to refer to the filtered infusions or brews made with cereals (rice, barley, wheat, millet…), nuts, fruit seeds (pumpkin, melon or watermelon seeds) or chufas (tigernuts), which were regularly made for alleged healing or nutritional purposes. For this reason, when referring solely to Horchata made with chufas or tigernuts (as in this paper), it is recommended it is referred to as Horchata de Chufa. 

Horchata de Chufa has been a staple component of Spanish diet over hundreds of years, and for this reason, Horchata is undoubtedly part of the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is thought to be extremely healthy due to its properties to prevent arteriosclerotic vascular disease and to reduce the risk of some types of cancer. Besides, people living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea who are used to eat a Mediterranean diet have been considered to have a longer life expectancy than people living in the North of Europe.


CHUFA AND HORCHATA TRADICIONAL PROPERTIES

According to the book Plantas medicinales: el Dioscórides renovado (Barcelona, 1956) by Pio Font Quer (1888-1964, Botany Professor in the Pharmacy Department at Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona), Horchata de Chufas “regulates body temperature and is a refreshing drink. It also helps to expel flatulencies, strengthens one’s guts and relieves stomach cramps.

Pio Font Quer uses a very old-fashioned language, since his book is an adaptation of an old pharmaceutical treaty by the doctor of the Roman Army Dioscorides, who lived in the 1st century CE/AD. The book is based on medical theories and therapies by Hippocrates from the 5th century BCE/BC and by Paracelsus from the 16th century CE/AD, and for this reason is considered to be outdated and far from contemporary medical knowledge. However, the book emphasises some of the most interesting characteristics of Horchata’s digestive properties:

1)  It is a eupeptic drink, since it helps to digest carbohydrates and lipids due to its amylase and lipase content, respectively. It also relieves the discomfort of flatulent dyspepsia and prevents meteorism (distention of the stomach or intestine)

2)  It is a diuretic drink, since it is composed of a large amount of water and very low sodium content, which prevents urinary retention.

3) It is a prebiotic due to its resistant (indigestible) starch content that promotes and feed several strains of beneficial bacteria.

4) Due to Horchata’s peroxidase and catalase content, the use of it is an oropharyngeal disinfectant to treat mouth ulcers would be not surprising.  However, it is rarely used as a mouthwash, since its most frequent use is to drink it.

In addition, Horchata de Chufas has energetic properties since it contains a higher amount of carbohydrates than milk (mostly starch and minimal traces of glucose). It also has astringent properties, since it is lactose and fructose-free, and that is why people who cannot digest milk sugar (which affects 30% of adults and around 50% of the elderly in Spain) or fruit sugar (and fruit-juice based drinks) are able to drink Horchata.

Horchata contains more iron, zinc and copper than cow or goat milk, and that is why it is especially suitable for young children, old people and pregnant women. Although it is not possible to get the minimum daily iron intake only by drinking Horchata, Compared to milk, three horchata properties stand out:

1)  Horchata is lactose-free and dairy free.

2)  Horchata contains less sodium and potassium than milk.

3) Horchata contains a significant amount of soluble fibre, which milk lacks.

However, Horchata’s content of amino acid and monounsaturated fats is what provides it with health benefits which distinguish it from other refreshing drinks.


COMPARISON BETWEEN THE COMPOSITION OF BOTH CHUFA AND HORCHATA

Chufas are about 26% water. Horchata is required by law to have at least 12% of soluble solid content, which means that 88% of Horchata is water. Horchata normally has a pH of 6.7 (minimum 6.3) and an average density of 1.013 grams/cc. Once it is on the market, it contains a 10% total amount of sugar (2.2-2.5% of which is starch) and a 2.5% minimum fat content. It provides 70 calories every 100ml, or in other words, a glass of horchata (250 ml) provides 170-180 calories.

The most abundant carbohydrate in chufas (and therefore, in Horchata with no added sugar) is starch: 29-34% of the tuber’s weight. Chufa starch behaves similarly to potato starch when heated, and to rice starch when cooled down.

After starch, the second most abundant carbohydrate is sucrose which comprises 16% of the tuber’s weight. Chufas also contain minimal traces of glucose, fructose and galactose.

The average content of carbohydrates in Horchata is 12.2 grams/100 ml, 9-10 grams/100 ml of which is sucrose and the rest is starch. However, when sweetened with sugar, the content of carbohydrates can reach up to 14% in some brands.

Regarding its lipid content, 22-26% of the tuber’s weight are fats. Chufa oil is particularly similar to olive oil, since they contain mostly oleic acid, which is more than 73% of its total fatty acid content. Chufa oil also contains 10% palmitic and stearic acid (same as soya oil or sunflower oil), and about 11% of linoleic acid (50% more than soya oil or sunflower oil), the same quantity as in olive oil.

From a medical point of view, Chufa’s lipid composition is ideal, since oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat, which helps reduce global cholesterol levels at the expense of LDL-cholesterol and increases HDL-cholesterol. Oleic acid also helps reduce triglycerides, which does not occur with polyunsaturated fats such as linoleic acid.

Horchata’s lipid content is about 2.4-3.1 grams/100 ml, 0.5 grams of which are saturated fats. It does not contain cholesterol. Its average content of fatty acids is: 77% oleic acid (monounsaturated), 11% palmitic acid (saturated) and 9% linoleic acid (polyunsaturated). For this reason, Chufa oil is not only similar to olive oil, but also to hazelnut oil or almond oil, which both of them are dry fruits that have been recommended to prevent arteriosclerosis.

Protein content in chufas is 8.7%, while in Horchata is 0.6-1.4 grams/100 ml. Regarding its amino acid content, the most predominant one is arginine, followed by aspartic acid, glutamic acid, leucine, alanine and lysine. Methionine, isoleucine, tryptophan and valine are the amino acids found in smaller quantities. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the nutritional value of Chufas and Horchata.

Some amino acids are considered essential because they are strictly necessary for several vital functions and our body is not able to synthetize them, therefore, they are obtained from exogenous sources. These nine amino acids are the following: methionine, isoleucine, threonine, leucine, lysine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, tryptophan and valine. However, another one should also be mentioned, arginine, which is necessary for the development of the immune system and the defence processes against germs. Arginine, besides increasing protein synthesis (which helps fighting hypoalbuminemia) is a nitric oxide precursor, which is an essential neurotransmitter, vasodilator and immunomodulatory substance that also has a significant function in digestive physiopathology. Nitric oxide stimulates the release of prolactin, therefore, it would be especially suitable for breastfeeding women. Nitric oxide also stimulates the release of insulin; and that is why its inclusion in the diets of middle-aged overweight (type 2 diabetics) would be recommended.

Five of these ten essential amino acids (arginine, methionine, leucine, isoleucine and lysine) are found in Horchata de Chufa in significant quantities, as well as glutamic acid and aspartic acid. For this reason, Horchata is an alternative for lipid-lowering diets such as veganism which do not allow patients to eat eggs, cheese and meat, since they are a main lipid intake source.

Fibre content in Chufas is about 10.3%, while in Horchata is significantly less: 0.9-1.03 grams/100 ml. Therefore, a glass of Horchata provides around 2.5 grams. However, if we also count 20% of starch which is not absorbed by the small intestine and reaches the colon, it could be said that a 300 ml glass of Horchata provides 6-8 grams of fibre. Most of it is soluble and fermentable fibre, which would represent a quarter of the recommended daily fibre intake (23-25 grams/day). Soluble fibre helps regulate glucose intestinal absorption and reduces the absorption of cholesterol. Since soluble fibre is fermented in the colon, it produces short-chain fatty acids, such as acetic acid, propionic acid and butyric acid. Butyric acid helps producing colonocytes.

Chufa skin has a high content of suberin, which is a non-fermentable fibre derived from cellulose. Cellulose is a polysaccharide not soluble in water, fat and ether which is part of plants structure and behaves as a colon prebiotic.


NUTRITIONAL PROPERTIES

Horchata de chufas carbohydrate content is not based on glucose, but on more complex sugars (sucrose and starch), and it is also lactose and fructose-free. It has an average/medium content of potassium, phosphorus and calcium and a low content of sodium. It also has a low content of iron, but does not lack it entirely as milk or carbonated drinks do. If extra sucrose is not added to Horchata, overweight diabetic people are able to drink it, they would also benefit from Horchata’s arginine content due to its insulin releasing properties.

Horchata contains a very similar amount of fatty acids as olive oil and nuts such as hazelnut, which adds an extra value to this drink. It helps to prevent arteriosclerosis and the presence of high levels of both cholesterol and triglycerides. Horchata contains enzymes such as amylase, lipase, catalase, among others, which could be responsible for Horchata digestive properties (however, this has not been scientifically proven yet).


USE OF HORCHATA AND CHUFA AS FOOD

Chufas can be eaten raw. However, the most popular and traditional  use of Chufas is for making Horchata, a non-alcoholic, non-carbonated, non-stimulating refreshing drink which has a sweet flavour, and for this reason was usually considered an afternoon snack (between lunch and dinner time).

Horchata contains less carbohydrates and sodium than other refreshing drinks, and that is why many kinds of people are able to drink it: children, the elderly, pregnant women, breastfeeding women, people with high blood pressure, heart diseases, chronic kidney diseases, chronic liver diseases, a restricted salt intake…

Horchata is one of the traditional components of the Mediterranean diet due to its high nutritional value and singular properties.

Horchata de Chufa consumption should be supported and recommended more than it is as this would allow us to restore a nutritional, traditional, healthy drink on the market.


BENEFICIAL DIGESTIVE PROPERTIES

1) Horchata can be used to provide easily digested energy to children and the elderly due to its carbohydrate content. Besides, it is lactose and fructose-free, which between a third and half of the population are intolerant to.

2) Since Horchata contains arginine (a semi-essential amino acid which is also a nitric oxide precursor), it has a singular effect on body’s immune competence. Arginine intake helps increasing the number of lymphocytes, which is especially relevant for people with kidney failure, since they have problems releasing this amino acid. Horchata also helps scar healing and reduces energy consumption in hypercatabolic patients. For this reason, arginine is an essential component in oral mixture used for enteral nutrition, and Horchata happens to be a good source of it.

4) Chufa’s mineral content is generally considered to be similar to the mineral content in oilseeds or oleaginous nuts. For this reason, it has hypolipidemic properties in both cholesterol and triglycerides, since its main component is monounsaturated oleic acid. Therefore Chufas are ideal to use in hypolipidemic diets.


USE OF HORCHATA TO PREVENT DIGESTIVE DISEASES

Due to Horchata’s starch content, it has both astringent and prebiotic properties, and together with lactic ferments from fermented bacteria, it can be used as a symbiotic.

Horchata has all of the preventative properties related to the Mediterranean diet, together with the rest of the food included in this category.


CAN HORCHATA BE USED TO TREAT COMMON DIGESTIVE DISEASES?

It is also important to stress that Horchata de Chufas would not be contraindicated in patients with chronic liver disease due to its low sodium content or for patients with bile duct disease or any pancreas diseases due to its minimal lipid content (less than 3 grams/100 ml) and its lack of cholesterol. Horchata de Chufa is also suitable for patients with Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s disease, due to its lipid content and prebiotic properties.


SHOULD SOME PRECAUTIONS BE TAKEN WHEN CONSUMING HORCHATA?

1) Due to the almost null content of sodium and the lack of stimulant substances (such as caffeine or tyramine), they are unnecessary in hypertensive patients. In fact, thanks to its high levels of arginine, a nitric oxide precursor, it has vessel dilatant effects.

2) Due to its low sodium content (proportional to the amount found in tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and carrots) makes them also unnecessary in pregnant women and in patients suffering from chronic liver disease, mild or medium renal insufficiency (severe cases might be subject to severe liquid restriction) and nephrotic syndrome.

3) If extra sucrose is not added, Horchata made de chufas has a lower content of both calories and simple sugars than most commercial fruit juices.

4) It is gluten-free, so people with Coeliac disease are able to consume it.

5) Despite being widely consumed in Spain, especially in summer, there are only two described cases of food allergy with cutaneous and bronchial hypersensitivity reactions in medical magazines. In one of the cases, the patient also presented otorhinolaryngological and bronchial allergy to Gramineae, olive tree, mustard, coconut and melon. It should be noted that Chufa allergy is much less common than soy allergy, which is described much more frequently.

In summary, Horchata de chufas is ideal for human nutrition, not only for its nutritional composition, but also for its functional food qualities, its added eupeptic-digestive value, its hypolipidemic and immunomodulatory properties and should also be considered as one of the components of Mediterranean diet.

References in Spanish Article: http://www.chufadevalencia.org/bd/archivos/archivo52.pdf


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