One of the healthiest habits that my father picked up when he was an Alzheimer’s patient in Lima (2011-2012) was drinking agua fresca throughout the day. Agua fresca, or “fresh water” as it is translated into English, is a popular drink throughout Latin America, but a bit of research on my part turned up an interesting fact: The Peruvian version that my father consumed day in, day out, differs in several ways from the agua fresca served elsewhere in Latin America. And those differences are what I’d like to explain for North American readers because this drink can benefit elders, their caregivers and people in general.
VERSION 1: COLD, SWEET, BLENDERIZED
Agua fresca in much of Latin America is a “light, non-alcoholic drink served by street vendors, in bodegas, and at eateries throughout Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean,” explains the Latin Kitchen. That type of agua fresca is made by mixing fresh fruit, sugar and cold water in a blender and straining the liquid so there’s no pulp. Spices or herbs are sometimes added, and the drink is served cold, often on ice. It’s popular for cooling down in the summer months, and you can find many recipes online, using watermelon, mango, papaya, etc.
Here’s a photo of agua fresca made in a blender, specifically, watermelon mint, from Epicurious:
VERSION 2: COOL OR TEPID, LESS SWEET, BOILED
While that cold, sweetened drink can also be found in Peru, a more traditional version is made by boiling fruit in a big pot of water on the stove, often with cinnamon, cloves and other spices. Sweeteners are optional. The mixture is strained and the resulting liquid can be consumed warm, tepid or chilled (with or without ice). Sometimes chunks of real fruit are added to the glass before serving. Peruvian families typically make agua fresca in their own homes, and some Peruvian bloggers have commented that nothing says “Welcome home” to them more than the aroma of apples and cinnamon bubbling away on a stovetop.
Boiled agua fresca can look like the photo at the top of this post, or cloudier, like the image below. Often it’s even more watered down.
The most popular favors are agua de manzana (apple water), agua de piña (pineapple water) and the generic agua de frutas (fruit water). Fruit-infused water is often consumed with meals, just as people in the U.S. typically have a glass of water at the table. This homemade drink is so customary in Peru that you’ll find agua fresca served at nearly every Mom and Pop restaurant that offers daily menus, or cheap lunchtime specials.
ECONOMICAL & HEALTHY
In addition to being a comfort drink, agua fresca is popular with Peruvians because it is economical. Relatively little fruit is used to infuse a large amount of water: Some recipes might call for two apples and one liter (4.2 cups) of water; another recipe calls for 8.5 ounces (about two peeled apples) and double the amount of water! In any case, the ratio of water to fruit isn’t exact, and the slow boiling technique enables the cook to “stretch” the fruit flavor over a large amount of liquid. Pineapple water is especially economical since it uses the outer skin (cascara), not the fruit itself. And given the abundance of fresh fruit in Peruvian markets, it’s possible for families at all economic levels to have access to plentiful agua fresca in their homes.
Another benefit of Peruvian agua fresca is it’s healthy. Made from fresh fruit and no preservatives, this flavored water doesn’t overload the body with artificial ingredients the way that soda does. This is something that many Peruvians are proud of. The author of Peru Delights, for instance, asserts that “In Peru we don´t buy bottled juices for the house on a daily basis, because, as is the case with food too, we are used to preparing them from scratch, only with fresh fruists.” She adds: “That´s probably one of the reasons we have sturdy, healthy bodies in general.” (See Peru Delights’s recipe for agua de manzana here. It’s in Spanish.)
There are many variations among agua fresca recipes concerning what kind of sweetener to use and how much. Some recipes instruct the cook to add one cup of sugar to eight cups of water; others say, “sweeten to your liking.” My husband says that when he was a boy in Lima, his mother would make it without sugar and let everyone add their own sugar in the glass. There were many kinds of sweeteners available.
This video for Agua de Manzana (Estilo Peruano), for instance, suggests using white or “raw” (rubia) sugar, or refined sugar alternatives, such as chancaca or panela. Chancaca is solid molasses that is often sold in blocks or circles; it dissolves well in boiling water. Panela is dehydrated, raw sugarcane with a rich, earthy flavor. It too is sold in bricks and is used a lot in Peruvian cooking. Online you’ll find plenty of claims that these sweeteners are healthier than refined sugar, and I’ll let you make up your mind as to whether you believe them or not.
In my opinion, what makes agua fresca a healthy drink is its high water content, subtle flavor and lack of artificial flavors and preservatives. None of the versions that I’ve ever tried were very sweet, so I think that the health benefits of adding nonrefined sugar (vs. refined sugar) are negligible. Obviously, it depends on how heavily sweetned the agua fresca is.
WHAT AGUA FRESCA TASTES LIKE…AND ITS BENEFITS
I’ve had traditional Peruvian agua fresca at restaurants and at people’s homes, and for my palette, I find it pleasant but bland. It reminds me of fruit-infused waters that are all the rage in the U.S., but with a fresher taste and hints of spices. It’s an easy drink to incorporate into any dietary regime, and not surprisingly, it’s popular with people who are trying to lose weight, due to its diuretic properties. But I think that its greatest benefit is providing hydration; its low calorie count mean that it can be drunk all day long, just like water, only with a little flavor lift. The flavor isn’t too strong or overbearing, which makes it perfect for children and the elderly, who especially need to stay hydrated.
As a daily drink for anyone, agua fresca is clearly healthy, economical and sustainable.
GREAT FOR THE ELDERLY
My dad lived in Peru from 2011 to 2012, and from the moment he was introduced to agua fresca, he drank it enthusiastically. His caregivers at our house and at the nursing home made it daily, and it became part of his daily routine—breakfast, almuerzo (big lunch) and cena (small dinner).
I remember seeing my father gulping down a glass of agua de manzana and thinking, ‘Maybe if he had drunk more of this during his lifetime and less soda and alcohol, he might not have gotten Alzheimer’s.”
Recipe for agua de manzana in my next blog post. You’ll find other recipes here.