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In November 2013 Dr. Oz featured a study titled “The Yacon Syrup Project“, in which yacon syrup was examined as “the next big thing in weight loss.” Dr. Oz also discussed the first human study on yacon syrup during his TV show and explored its potential as a powerful tool for weight loss. During the course of his show, convincing evidence was presented, which seems to validate yacon as a potential “metabolism game changer.” Aside from Dr. Oz’s study, there are other clinical studies and research corroborating the hypothesis that yacon could potentially ameliorate several chronic human diseases and conditions. Many studies prove that yacon is a potentially effective nutraceutical for the treatment and prevention of diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome (DOM), which are typical comorbidities. As a powerful weight loss catalyst, yacon may be exploited as an effective plant based medicinal to address obesity and its comorbid complications. In addition to its syrup, the entire yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) plant, including its leaves, have been shown to confer therapeutic value as a natural remedy and preventative agent for the relief of various chronic conditions.
Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius), colloquially named the Peruvian Ground Apple, is native to the Northern and Central Andes. It is most widely grown in Peru and is a relative of the sunflower family as well as the Jerusalem Artichoke. It is a tuber that is perennial in sub-tropical and tropical areas. The sweet roots, with a juicy flesh similar to that of an apple or watermelon, can be eaten raw, are high in water content and are favorably low in calories. Although historically used throughout the South American Andes to treat a variety of chronic illnesses, yacon has recently sparked the interest of many doctors, health practitioners, nutritionists and scientists in the USA for its various medicinal properties and applications. It should be noted that, “in Bolivia, Yacon has been consumed by diabetics for centuries.” (International Potato Center, 2014, “The Growing Importance of Andean Root and Tuber Crops,” para. 3) Due to the prevalence of highly processed diets, high stress lifestyles and lack of exercise, diabetes, obesity and the metabolic syndrome (DOM) often associated with it are endemic and costly health problems in the United States. Therefore, natural remedies and treatments for those conditions should be explored, examined and utilized.
FOS and Prebiotics:
Although found in other plants, such as the Jerusalem Artichoke, research confirms that yacon roots contain the highest concentration of Fructooligosaccharide (FOS) in comparison to any other plant source. FOS is distinguished from other sugars because of its resistance to the hydrolysis of enzymes in the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. FOS is considered a dietary fiber, resulting in a low caloric value as it leaves the body undigested. Most pathogens and putrefactive bacteria are not able to break the FOS chemical bond, which suppresses the growth of potentially harmful species such as Clostridium perfringens in the colon. (Iannitti & Palmieri, 2010) FOS therefore increases the growth of symbiotic bacteria while inhibiting growth of those that are harmful. In more simple terms, FOS in yacon cannot be fully broken down in the intestinal tract, allowing it to travel unharmed to the colon where it is able to stimulate the production of beneficial bacteria. This makes yacon one of the most powerful and effective natural food based sources of prebiotics. The low caloric impact of FOS found in the yacon is of special importance for the promotion of weight loss. Considering its multifaceted therapeutic benefits, interest in yacon could exceed that of other natural sweeteners such as agave syrup and honey.
Yacon is also helpful for the natural relief of constipation and could replace certain laxative drugs, such as MiraLax (polyethylene glycol). The mechanism of action in regard to yacon’s anti-constipation activity is thought to arise from the fact that it corrects a patient’s intestinal bacteria. According to a study conducted by the University Hospital Basel in Switzerland, in which 20 grams of yacon syrup were administered to patients over a 2 week period, yacon markedly accelerates colonic transit in healthy individuals. Due to the low caloric content of yacon, the root could be a useful treatment in constipated diabetics or obese patients. (Geyer, Manrique, Degen, & Beglinger, 2008) Many health practitioners believe that the root cause of many bowel disorders, including constipation, are caused by disequilibrium in intestinal flora. The prebiotic rich FOS within yacon, alongside the fiber it produces, seems to help correct those imbalances. According to Roberfroid’s definition of prebiotics published in the March 2007 Journal of Nutrition, “A prebiotic is a selectively fermented ingredient that allows specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora that confers benefits upon host well-being and health.” (Roberfroid MB, 2007) Yacon may be used as a powerful agent to correct imbalances in gut flora, which are believed to be the root cause of several disorders, ranging from those in the mental realm to those related to inflammation, the immune system and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Prebiotics have been found to have a positive impact on digestion and immune system strength, weight loss and in restoring equilibrium of the gastrointestinal tract at the micro level. Western scientists have recently become more interested in these probiotic benefits with a particular focus on those derived from natural food sources. “Unlike other sources of FOS, yacon is so rich in them that an effective dose is ensured by consuming only a moderate amount of the root, described to be very palatable. The yield/ton in the field is also far superior to that of the currently conventional sources of FOS.” (Ilkka Ojansivua, Celia Lucia Ferreirab and Seppo Salminen, 2011) As seen in the corresponding table below, the high concentration of FOS found in yacon provides significant health benefits ranging from colon cancer prevention to treatment of diarrhea, which is a common adverse effect especially associated with use of broad spectrum antibiotics.
Fig. 1 Activities and Therapeutic Uses of FOS (Giovanni Brandi, Monica Di Battista, 2003)
Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome (DOM):
Ancient and modern societies in various regions throughout the world have discovered and applied locally harvested natural plant, spice and herbal remedies for the treatment of many chronic conditions. Some of these remedies are as effective, if not more so, than conventional pharmacological solutions offered through Western medicine in the United States. These natural remedies often have fewer adverse side effects and offer a greater overall benefit to holistic human wellness. Gupta et al. corroborates, “since antiquity, diabetes has been treated orally with medicinal plants or their extracts. Tried herbal remedies are seemingly effective, produce minimal or no side effects and are of relatively low cost when compared to oral synthetic hypoglycemic agents.” (2005) A multitude of experiments confirm that yacon syrup, flour and tea have a positive medicinal impact on the conditions of hyperglycemia, obesity and metabolic syndrome. Aybar et al. (2001) observed that tea made from an infusion of yacon leaves, administered orally for a 30 day period, reduced the blood sugar level in streptozotocin induced diabetic rats by approximately 27%. The hypoglycemic effect of yacon in the study was attributable to the elevating action of yacon tealeaves on patient plasma insulin concentration. Throughout Bolivia and in other countries where this crop is currently produced, people suffering from diabetes, various digestive and renal disorders commonly consume yacon roots. In Brazil, dried leaves are used to prepare an anti-diabetic tea (Aybar etal.,2001). Although, it is recently possible to find yacon syrup in many health stores throughout the USA, procuring yacon tea leaves is more of a challenge as their health benefits are either less known or underappreciated. Volpato et al. (1997) obtained convincing data suggesting that yacon leaves can reduce blood glucose levels. Aybar et al. found that the administration of 2% yacon tea ad libitum instead of water for 30 days produced a significant hypoglycemic effect on STZ-induced diabetic rats. After 30 days of tea administration, diabetic rats showed improved body (plasma glucose, plasma insulin levels, body weight) and renal parameters (kidney weight, kidney to body weight ratio, creatine clearance, urinary albumin excretion) in comparison with the diabetic controls. Results suggested that yacon water extract produces an increase in plasma insulin concentration. (Aybar, Sánchez Riera, Grau, & Sánchez, 2001) This study proves that yacon leaves are useful as a tea to address DOM. Tea made from yacon leaves has become a popular drink throughout Asia, where yacon has been successfully cultivated outside of its natural Andean habitat. Another study by Genta et al. further validates the effectiveness of yacon leaves on diabetes. The results presented strongly support the notion that several phenolic compounds separated from yacon leaves as well as enhydrin are important hypoglycemic attributes that could ameliorate the diabetic state. (Genta et al., 2010) It is unfortunate that these aforementioned health benefits found in yacon leaves and roots are not applied wholesale in the United States.
Outside of South America, yacon is already used throughout Japan and many other nations in Asia as an effective medicinal for the treatment of diabetes. Research suggests that yacon is as useful as many pharmacological interventions and its medicinal properties should be further elucidated to patients and health practitioners in the USA. Genta et al. found that the methanol, butanol and chloroform extracts in yacon showed effective hypoglycemic activity at minimum doses of 50, 10 and 20mg/kg body weight, respectively. Oral administration of a single-dose of each extract produced a slight lowering effect in the fasting blood glucose level of normal healthy rats, whereas each extract tempered significantly the hyperglycemic peak after food ingestion. Daily administration of each extract for 8 weeks produced an effective glycemic control in diabetic animals with an increase in the plasma insulin level. (2010) The success seen throughout Latin America and Asia in addressing these deleterious chronic disease conditions through the use of the entire yacon plant should be further studied and exploited as an effective medicinal in the United States, where DOM is of special concern.
Populations of regions within the United States where DOM is most prevalent may find it helpful to consume fruits and vegetables that are high in fructo- oligosaccharides (FOS). Due to its high FOS and inulin concentration, yacon could be promoted as a staple crop within the USA, especially in states such as Mississippi, where DOM is endemic. Recently, yacon syrup, extracted and concentrated from the yacon tubers, has been shown to improve insulin resistance and reduce body weight in obese individuals. (Genta, S. Cabrera, W. Habib, N. Pons, J. Carillo, I. M. Grau, A. Sanchez, 2009). The Department of Nephrology, Hypertension, Diabetology, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Fukushima Medical University, Fukushima, Japan along with the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Department of Medicine at the University of California-San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA conducted a study on male Zucker rats over a period of 5 weeks in which they were fed a chow containing 6.5% yacon. The resulting insulin sensitivity was evaluated and the results of the study concluded, “that the effect of yacon feeding to reduce blood glucose is likely due to its beneficial effects on hepatic insulin sensitivity in the insulin resistant state.” (Satoh, Audrey Nguyen, Kudoh, & Watanabe, 2013) These studies validate the notion that the yacon is a powerful weapon in the effort to combat the economically and socially deleterious condition of DOM in the USA.
Obesity is a problematic condition faced by many in the US. It typically leads to type 2 diabetes and a host of other health problems associated with metabolic syndrome. According to the American Heart Association, 154.7 million adult Americans age 20 and older are overweight or obese with a BMI of 25.0 kg/m2 and higher. American Heart Association statistics for children are not so favorable either, with 23.9 million children between the ages of 2 to 19 being overweight or obese. That amounts to 33.0% of boys and 30.4% of girls in the nation being considered overweight or obese. Diabetes often leads to high mortality rates. According to the Stop Diabetes campaign of the American Diabetes Association, “Diabetes kills more Americans each year than breast cancer and AIDS combined.” The financial cost of obesity is another concern, which affects the macro and micro economy of the nation. According to the American Heart Association, “The total excess cost related to the current prevalence of adolescent overweight and obesity is estimated to be $254 billion ($208 billion in lost productivity secondary to premature morbidity and mortality and $46 billion in direct medical costs).” The American Heart Association estimates that if the current trend continues, health care costs attributable to obesity could reach $861 to $957 billion by 2030, which would account for 16 to 18% of all US health expenditures. These figures and costs would only continue to climb with new diagnoses of diabetes. According to the Stop Diabetes campaign, recent estimates project that as many as 1 in 3 American adults will have diabetes in 2050 unless steps are taken to fight it. The deleterious human health and financial impact of diabetes is astonishing.
Obviously, this is a physically and economically debilitating national health crisis that must be actively addressed. Since obesity and the array of health complications associated with it are typically preventable through lifestyle changes, education and proper dietary adjustments, this is one societal quandary that may be significantly diminished, if not nearly eliminated. The physical health of the population, economy and national productivity depend on effectively and quickly addressing DOM.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, The obese state increases risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and some cancers. It has been found that a 5 to 10 percent loss in weight can delay or prevent some of those aforementioned diseases in obese patients. Nutraceuticals, which lead to natural and safe weight loss, are of special value and importance in regard to achieving this resuscitative weight loss. Research shows that yacon may be a powerful part of the arsenal employed against DOM. Addressing DOM will collectively have a positive influence on economic growth and development, worker productivity, and it will also lessen the burden on the overstretched and inefficient system of sick care. The use of yacon to address DOM will therefore exhibit tangibly beneficial reverberations upon society to encourage improvement of both human and economic health. During this period of relative economic difficulty, which has adversely affected the physical and psychological health of the nation, any natural product with a history of safe and effective use to address these aforementioned conditions should be exploited wholesale.
Volumes of research and scientific data seem to corroborate Dr. Oz’s findings that yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius), in its entirety, is a potentially effective nutraceutical for the relief of several chronic human conditions, most notably diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome (DOM). Yacon has been effectively used for centuries to combat these debilitating human conditions throughout the Andes region and is now being adopted as a medicinal crop in other global areas. Considering its many beneficial properties, yacon should be effectively harnessed as a staple crop in the USA, especially in regions where DOM is endemic. Replacing other common tuber vegetables, such as white potatoes, with yacon would prove to be highly therapeutic and confer significant health benefits upon consumers. Aside from its effectiveness in combatting and reliving symptoms of DOM, yacon is also a powerful prebiotic due to its high fructo- oligosaccharide (FOS) concentration. By addressing internal imbalances of symbiotic bacterial equilibrium in the gut, yacon may be applied as a treatment for other conditions and disease processes thought to stem from such imbalances. In the context of our nation’s battle against the widespread and costly conditions of DOM, every available and safe natural remedy should be utilized. A targeted campaign should be initiated to educate the public and health professionals on the usefulness of yacon in promoting holistic health and relieving several chronic human disease states.
By Kevin Peery
Kevin Peery is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin holding a Bachelor of Arts with double majors in Business Economics and History. His key areas of interest and expertise include: Clean technology development, sustainability, green building, social entrepreneurship and preventative holistic health.
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Carolina Serra-Barcellona, et al., in their analysis of Smallanthus macroscyphus, the wild variety of the yacon, confirmed that their results “strongly support the notion that S. macroscyphus represents a new source of antidiabetic compounds that could help to manage diabetes more efficiently and safely.” (Serra-Barcellona, et al. p. 35)
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