The term “superfood” has, in my opinion, been vastly overused – but when seeking a functional food with multiple health benefits, some worthy candidates still remain.

Chia seed, for example, is deserving of the title, as are turmeric and moringa. However, I have recently become enamoured with another worthy contender. This food, like chia seed, comes from South America, but it can be grown anywhere in Australia. Australia has become the world’s largest producer of chia, and I would like to see a similar initiative unfold with an exciting root crop called yacon.

Yacon is a 2-metre tall, sunflower-like annual, which produces an abundance of cream-coloured tubers that are harvested when the large plant dies back in June. The tubers are attached to rhizomes, from which the next generation is spawned.

Yacon plants on our NTS farm

The sought-after rhizomes become the breeding material for the next crop. Each plant produces around twenty good-sized rhizomes, and this becomes a substantial secondary income stream for yacon producers.

Each rhizome reliably produces a vigorous new plant, which, in temperate regions, is best started in a nursery during late Winter and transplanted into the soil in Spring.

Yacon rhizomes from the NTS farm

After learning about yacons from my WA friend, Haydn Gunningham, a couple of years back, I began large-scale production of this root vegetable and they are a joy to grow. They are largely pest-free, apart from raiding bandicoots and bush turkeys (if they are lucky enough to uncover the sweet juicy tubers).

This season, I decided it was time to value-add our Nutrition Farms® yacon crop by freeze-drying the tubers into a powdered concentrate. It was a bit of a shock to discover that one tonne of tubers converts to just 135 kg of powder! However, this is good news for consumers, as this concentration effect means that the powder is over seven times more potent than the raw tubers. The vast array of benefits is similarly more pronounced.

Yacon - Four Income Streams and a Side Benefit

The yacon, as mentioned, has an immediate market for the delicious tubers, which can be steamed, roasted or eaten raw. The chewy, dried slices are equally appealing, particularly when you understand that the prebiotic potential has been quadrupled (the dehydration process generally concentrates all active components four-fold). Yacon syrup is quite easily produced, and it is in demand as a problem-free sweetener for diabetics. Now, the freeze dried powder offers a super concentrated fifth income stream.

As the yacon market develops, the rhizomes may yet prove more profitable for producers than the tubers. They are currently selling for about $1.50 each, which provides an additional earning potential of over $30 per plant. Finally, the leaf is great antioxidant-rich fodder for livestock (including chickens, who strip the stalks clean within minutes).

Yacon tuber and rhizome connected

The Top Seven Benefits of Yacon

Residents of the Andes have enjoyed this sweet, juicy root vegetable for over 1000 years, but the recognition and popularity of this food has only recently spread beyond the shores of South America. There are multiple functional usages of this superfood, but here are the seven top benefits:

1) A powerhouse prebiotic

It has been estimated that there is a 3 billion dollar market potential for prebiotics, as the world awakens to the importance of our ‘life within’. Our 30-foot digestive tract should house over 100 trillion organisms (ten times the total number of cells in our bodies). This ‘biological bank account’ funds every aspect of our health and wellbeing, from immune competency to mental wellness. However, we have mercilessly assaulted this microbial workforce with antibiotics, food stabilisers, prescription drugs and artificial sweeteners. There is tremendous benefit in compensating for this onslaught, by feeding and nurturing our inner allies. Prebiotics are substances that feed and stimulate our gut life. The best-researched of these compounds are fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin.

Foods from the allium family, including garlic, leeks and onions, along with foods like bananas and artichokes, feature good levels of these stimulatory compounds. However, the highest known source of FOS and inulin is the yacon plant. It literally serves as a life-enhancing medicine, supporting the creatures who support us, on so many levels. This prebiotic push is potentially seven times more concentrated in the freeze-dried powder.

2) Lose weight with YaconMax™

Yacon is a recognised regulator of body fat. The mechanics of this regulation are multi-layered. This root vegetable can replace potatoes, which are a serious “fat food”, due to a glycemic index substantially higher than white table sugar. Secondly, this yacon concentrate can speed up metabolism, so you burn more calories. Then, the prebiotic effect means you improve digestive efficiency, which can reduce weight.

However it is the appetite suppressing capacity of yacon that is most exciting. Yacon has been shown to shut down the hunger hormone, ghrelin. The effect is quite remarkable. Two teaspoons of the powdered concentrate 15 minutes before a meal usually means you will eat much less of that meal, as your appetite diminishes. In a strange world where there are now equal numbers of starving and overweight people, this appetite suppressant could be just what is desperately needed.

YaconMax™ – available from NTS Health and Nutrition Farms®

3) An invaluable tool for blood sugar management

Type 2 diabetes is now often called “the coming plague”, as it is suggested that up to one in three of us may be pre-diabetic. Refined carbohydrates, including sugar, are the biggest players in both the battle of the bulge and our poor blood sugar management. This is where yacon shines - it is often called “the diet potato” because it has both low calories and a very low glycemic index. The glycemic index is a measure of how fast any given food spikes our blood sugar. Insulin is produced as a result of this spike, and some of that excess insulin eventually becomes fat. Low fasting blood insulin was the only common denominator in a recent, large-scale, global study of centenarians. In this context, the consumption of low GI food, like yacon, is a serious secret of longevity.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Genta et al. 2009) revealed that yacon syrup significantly reduced fasting insulin levels while promoting weight loss and suppressing appetite. This super concentrated YaconMax™ powder may yet prove to be more potent than the syrup in this regard.

4) Addressing Metabolic Syndrome

Research published in the March 2008 issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology (Velentova et al. 2008) revealed a relationship between yacon consumption and reduced risk of Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome involves a collection of elevated markers, which together generate a far greater risk of stroke, heart attack, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. These markers include high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, high triglyceride levels, low levels of HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) and excess fat around the waist.

In that 2008 study, yacon was combined with silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle, to reduce all five markers of this precursor condition.

The very high levels of fructooligosaccharides (FOS) in yacon have been shown to reduce both low density lipoproteins and LDL cholesterol. This is seen as a protectant against fatty liver, a major health issue impacting our largest internal organ.

5) Antioxidant impact

The theory of free radical degeneration proposes that these unstable molecules are primary players in premature ageing and untimely death. Free radicals lack an outer electron, and this instability drives destructive behaviour, similar to taking a wrecking ball to neighbouring cells. Antioxidants donate an electron to quell these free radical fires. We would all benefit from a dietary boost in antioxidants, and yacon roots (and leaves) qualify as a rich source of these protective substances. Yacon leaf tea contains three powerful antioxidants: caffeic acid, ferulic acid and chlorogenic acid. The roots are also rich in antioxidants, containing resveratrol, the heart-protecting compound also found in red wine, and chlorogenic acid.

I had wondered about the reports of relaxation, sleep improvement, and a sense of wellbeing associated with consumption of yacon roots. It was only when researching this article, I discovered a recently published paper (Cao et al. 2018)  where it was discovered that yacon roots contain a significant percentage of tryptophan. This amino acid/antioxidant is the building block for serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin is the 'feel good hormone', often lacking in people suffering from depression. Melatonin helps us sleep, and it is a major antioxidant and cancer fighting compound. Yacon boosts both and the concentrated powder magnifies this potential.

6) Conquers constipation

Yacon tubers have been used to combat constipation for centuries in the Andes. However, the modern world has much more need for this remedy. Laxatives are now a huge business, as so many struggle with maintaining regularity. We all need to poo at least once a day, to excrete spent hormones and other metabolic waste. If we can not make this daily delivery, then the outcome can be endocrine disruption and a host of other issues relative to a process called re-toxification (the undesirable re-absorption of waste products).

Yacon tubers counter constipation in two ways. Their prebiotic influence fires the good guys responsible for peristalsis, the rhythmic contraction of the digestive tract that moves things along the tube. Probiotic organisms message the digestive tract to squeeze at each stage, including that important last squeeze.

The second laxative impact relates to the high fibre level found in yacon. Unlike high GI potatoes, which have no fibre, these treats are packed with the soluble and insoluble fibre - so important for bowel health.

7) Healthy versatility in the kitchen

The sweet root has the crunchy texture of an apple and can be used in both green salads with lemon juice and fruit salads with a little honey. It can also be grated, stir fried, steamed or baked, like other root vegetables. The high antioxidant, prebiotic-packed leaves can also be used, like grape leaves or cabbage leaves, to wrap other foods. They can also be brewed to make a multi-benefit herbal tea. The powdered concentrate can be added to green smoothies, juices, milk or it can be used as a sweetener.

Delicious fresh yacon root from the NTS farm

The Power of Powder

There are two ways to freeze-dry food, and they vary greatly in terms of the quality of the end product. One of these approaches is much less expensive, but it involves the use of microwave technology, with associated damage potential. We use a local company called Freeze Dried Industries, who specialise in the slower, more gentle technology, that optimises the phytochemical component.

In this context, I always argue that “the nose knows”. Our first value-adding experiment with Nutrition Farms® produce involved the freeze-drying of our nutrient-dense, chemical-free, turmeric, to produce a product called Curcu-Life™.

Most turmeric powders are extracted with the less expensive freeze-drying process, and then involve further sanitation requirements when imported into Australia. Just compare the smell of Curcu-Life™ with the smell of the imported powders. There is simply no comparison. In fact, Curcu-Life™ remains one of my favourite creations.

Curcu-Life™ from NTS Health and Nutrition Farms®

Curcumin, the potent, protective pigment found in turmeric, is quite poorly absorbed. Research has demonstrated that piperine, the powerful phytonutrient found in black pepper, can seriously increase the uptake and utilisation of curcumin in our bodies. In fact, one large study found a 2000-fold increase in curcumin uptake when black pepper was included (Prasad, Tyagi and Aggarwal 2014). These studies suggest an optimum black pepper percentage to maximise curcumin uptake and utilisation, and that optimum percentage of organic black pepper was included in the  Curcu-Life™ formula. I might digress a little at this point, to sing the praises of curcumin.

Understanding the Curcumin Potential

Curcumin is now one of the most researched of plant medicines. In fact, there have been over 600 published papers in the past decade. This potent substance has been described as “the most powerful anti-inflammatory ever researched”. Inflammation is linked to every major degenerative disease and curcumin has proven at least as effective as the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), without the gut-scouring side effects.

Another key benefit involves the antioxidant benefits of turmeric. Here, we are talking about more than the curcumin component, as there are other compounds in turmeric that are proven antioxidants. There is a double whammy benefit here because this suite of protectors have also been shown to boost our key antioxidant enzyme systems, glutathione peroxidase and superoxide dismutase.

There are also multiple studies relative to turmeric and heart health. In much of this research, it is about the integrity of the lining on the inside of our blood vessels, called endothelium function. CHD (coronary heart disease) can often involve degeneration of this lining, with associated blood pressure and clotting outcomes. In one study, turmeric was as effective as exercise in terms of improving endothelial function (Parker et al. 2017). In another, it equaled the performance of a prescription drug used for this purpose (Gupta, Patchva and Aggarwal 2013).

Curcumin has also been shown to offer significant liver protection. It can reduce the damage associated with alcohol, while also reducing the destructive potential of leptins, triglycerides, and fatty acid concentrations.

Turmeric boosts the good guys in our gut. In one study, entitled “The Effects of Turmeric and Curcumin Supplementation on Human Gut Microbiota” (Peterson et al. 2018),  there was a 7% increase in biodiversity associated with supplementation. However, the exciting finding revealed a whopping 69% increase in total numbers of probiotic organisms found in those supplementing.

Turmeric roots and powder

Curcumin has been linked to brain protection and there are several studies relative to Alzheimer’s disease. Curcumin appears to increase levels of a brain hormone called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Both Alzheimer’s and depression are characterised by low levels of this hormone.

The anti-depressive capacity of curcumin is also well researched. In fact, this versatile phytochemical has been shown to have a multi-levelled impact on the dreaded “black dog”. In one study it proved to be as effective as Prozac in countering depression (Sanmukhani et al. 2013).  In another, it was shown to be effective in treating acute anxiety (often a precursor to depression) (Kulkarni and Dhir 2010).

Curcumin can serve to balance serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and glutamate. Curcumin also boosts production of glutathione peroxidase, an essential antioxidant for both brain and liver protection. It can also help reduce the damage associated with heavy metals, like mercury, which are notorious for their link to depression. It is now recognised that the health of your microbiome is also linked to depression, as we awaken to the realisation that the gut truly is the second brain.

When you discover that hundreds of papers report the diverse benefits of turmeric, it becomes increasingly obvious that it is something truly special. There is no other plant medicine with this massive range of benefits. It is effectively a tool that can help us reclaim responsibility for our own health.

Each heaped teaspoon of Curcu-Life™ from Nutrition Farms® contains over 100 mg of actual curcumin, along with the full suite of other phytochemicals, including quercetin, demethoxycurcumin, bisdemethoxycurcumin and some powerful volatile oils, including turmerone, artumerone and zingiberene.

The powder can be added to hot milk to create a golden latte, or it can be added to fruit juice. It can be used liberally in cooking, or Curcu-Life™ can create a spicy coffee or tea. It can also form the basis of golden paste, which involves the addition of coconut oil, and is wonderfully effective. Curcumin is a fat-soluble substance, so the inclusion of an oil or milk will always boost performance.

Where to Source these Nutrition Farms® Superfoods

Both YaconMax™ and Curcu-Life™ can be sourced from ntshealth.com.au, or from nutritionfarms.com. Alternatively, they can be ordered by contacting NTS on 07 5472 9900, or sales@nutri-tech.com.au.


Reference List

Cao et al. 2018. Phytochemical Properties and Nutrigenomic Implications of Yacon as a Potential Source of Prebiotic: Current Evidence and Future Directions. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5920424/

Genta et al. 2009. Yacon syrup: Beneficial effects on obesity and insulin resistance in humans. Journal of Clinical Nutrition Vol. 28 Issue 2. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0261561409000302

Gupta S, Patchva S, Aggarwal B. Therapeutic Roles of Curcumin: Lessons Learned from Clinical Trials. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3535097/

Kulkarni S, Dhir A 2010. An Overview of Curcumin in Neurological Disorders. Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2929771/

Parker et al. 2017. Curcumin supplementation improves vascular endothelial function in healthy middle-aged and older adults by increasing nitric oxide bioavailability and reducing oxidative stress. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5310664/#:~:text=In%20healthy%20middle%2Daged%20and%20older%20adults%2C%2012%20weeks%20of,improving%20conduit%20artery%20endothelial%20function.

Peterson et al. 2018. Effects of Turmeric and Curcumin Dietary Supplementation on Human Gut Microbiota: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study. Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6083746/#:~:text=In%20a%20mouse%20model%20of,function%20and%20reduced%20systemic%20inflammation.&text=Turmeric%20repressed%20human%20Ruminococcus%20spp.

Prasad, Tyagi and Aggarwal 2014. Recent Developments in Delivery, Bioavailability, Absorption and Metabolism of Curcumin: the Golden Pigment from Golden Spice. Journal of Cancer Research and Treatment. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3918523/

Sanmukhani et al. 2013. Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23832433/

Velentova et al. 2008. Maca (Lepidium meyenii) and yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) in combination with silymarin as food supplements: In vivo safety assessment. Vol. 46 Issue 2. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278691507005054#!