The Über Tuber

A look at the many benefits of yacón
By Adam Swenson

On the lower slopes of the Andes Mountains in Peru grows a tuber nicknamed “the apple of the earth.” A staple of the Peruvian diet for thousands of years, yacón has a tremendous list of benefits: It is low in calories, has a low glycemic index, and provides a rich supply of inulin, an important prebiotic fiber.

Due to Peru’s proximity to the equator, the growing season for yacón is very long. Most farmers stagger the plantings so they can have a year-round harvest.

History

A perennial plant, yacón is grown for its tuberous roots, which are large, weighing anywhere from half a pound to five pounds each. A member of the sunflower family, yacón plants can grow over seven feet tall and produce a small yellow flower when it is time to harvest. The leaves of the plant are also edible—South Americans use them to wrap other foods for cooking and to make tea. The tea made from these leaves has prebiotic and antioxidant properties.

Navitas Naturals founder and CEO, Zach Adelman, said yacón has a crunchy flavor similar to a McIntosh apple. Peruvians put it in their fruit salads, bake it, roast it, stir fry it, and even make chips out of it.

In 1653 the Spanish priest and writer Bernabé Cobo noted that the yacón has the “capacity of resisting the exhibition in the sun several days after the crop turning, on the contrary, of more pleasant flavor.” Yacón roots can be put in the sun for up to two weeks to increase the starch conversion process and, as food historian William Woys Weaver points out, the roots will only get sweeter in storage. Yacón can be stored up to eight months without going bad.

Yacón was introduced to Japan in the 1980s and then spread to other Southeast Asian countries such as South Korea, China, and the Philip­pines. It is now a market staple in these countries. It also grows well in Australia and New Zealand with their mild climates and long growing seasons. Yacón is not grown on a commercial scale in the US, but it will show up here and there in farmers’ markets.

Navitas Naturals first introduced organic yacón products from the Andes region of Peru about eight years ago said Adleman. “We were one of the early pioneers to the marketplace and we originally offered yacón syrup, dried slices, and a powder. At the time, yacón was virtually unknown and sales were slow. So a few years ago we discon­tinued the powder, and the syrup and slices were moved to website sales only. We never gave up on yacón, but we did scale it back. Now interest is growing fast, so we’re re-launching the yacón and we’re re-launching the syrup in a new squeeze bottle later this spring.”

Nutritional profile

Though sweet tasting and starchy, yacón has a low glycemic index and actually helps with weight loss. Why is this? The secret is the prebiotics: inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS). FOS resists breakdown by the enzymes in the human digestive system, meaning you get a lot of great taste and minimal calories (yacón syrup only has 20 calories per teaspoon). FOS is a soluble fiber (which increases stool bulks and helps prevent constipation) and, because it is a prebiotic, it feeds the beneficial bacteria in the colon like Bifidus and Lactobacillus.

Maintaining a proper balance of bacteria in the gut is, of course, linked to a number of excellent health benefits, including fighting inflammation and boosting the immune system. In a sort of symbiotic relationship, these bacteria convert the FOS to short-chain fatty acids, which help to lower cholesterol and enhance insulin sensitivity—so this is an excellent food for anyone with diabetes or someone who is prediabetic. Yacón also may help control appetite and food cravings, so people naturally eat less.

Like many of nature’s most ingenious inventions, the benefits of yacón just keep coming. Studies show that yacón consumption can increase mineral absorption and make calcium more bioavailable. The FOS and inulin in yacón may also increase immune system efficiency, lower the body’s risk of infection, and reduce digestive allergies.

Adleman said that beyond the benefits of FOS, yacón is “a well-balanced source of nutrients including antioxidants, protein, potassium, vitamins A and C, calcium, phosphorus, and fiber.”

There is no doubt that yacón is amply deserving of the superfood title.

Dr. Oz and weight loss

Yacón’s recent surge in popularity owed a great deal to one very fortuitous development: Dr. Oz said it would help you lose weight. But before he went on air to talk about it, The Dr. Oz Show actually conducted a test to see if the mighty yacón delivered on its promise. In their test, 40 women ate one teaspoon of yacón syrup before or during each meal and otherwise did not change their eating or exercise habits. After four weeks, 73 percent of the women lost weight—an average of 2.9 pounds. Twenty-eight percent of the women lost five pounds or more.

An Argentinian study published in Clinical Nutrition showed more dramatic results. In that study, 55 obese women took three to four teaspoons of yacón syrup during the day. The women also slightly reduced their calorie intake and walked 45 minutes twice a week. The women in the control group who didn’t use yacón experi­enced minimal change, while the yacón users lost an average of 33 pounds, and showed great improvements in their insulin levels, their cholesterol profile, and bowel function.

One word of warning, however: Experts caution that yacón syrup should be used in modest quantities as high levels can cause diarrhea and cramping.

Consumption

If you’re looking to put yacón in your diet, Navitas Naturals Yacón Slices would be a good place to start. They can be eaten as a healthy snack: Substitute them for a time when you might otherwise eat something sugary.

Yacón syrup can likewise be consumed as a supplement or it can be used in cooking, though high heat can marginalize some of the health benefits.

If you struggle with weight problems, including high blood pressure and high blood sugar, the solution could well be growing in a Peruvian farmer’s field right now.