How did the yacón, a tropical plant closely related to the artichoke and the sunflower, become a health food sensation? High in fiber, potassium, and antioxidants, the root has a crisp, refreshing flavor and a sweetness that comes from inulin rather than glucose. This gives yacón products the sugary taste of honey or maple syrup but with only a fraction of the calories.

Thirst-quenching root

Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is a perennial plant also known as Peruvian ground apple, Bolivian sunroot, and underground pear. Native to the Andes, the plant can be found from Colombia to Argentina. Its root is similar in appearance to a sweet potato and has a taste likened to apple, watermelon, and cucumber.

The yacón‘s crisp tuberous roots consist mostly of water. The name itself means ‘water root’ in the Quechuan language, and the plant has been historically favored by both travelers and farmers for its hydrating properties. The tubers are rich in calcium, potassium, and essential amino acids, and can be eaten raw or cooked as well as processed into flour, juices, and syrups.

From Andean mountain to suburban vegetable garden

The yacón plant is typically grown at mid-elevations and can reach a height of two meters. While tubers can take on a range of colors in South America – red, orange, yellow, purple – only the white variety is usually found across the rest of the world. After harvesting, the sweetness of the root increases over time with exposure to sunlight.

The plant can be easily grown in gardens with mild climates and has become popular across Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Yacón’s arrowhead-shaped leaves are also edible, contain a range of prebiotics, and can be brewed into tea or used in cooking as a spinach or olive leaf replacement.

The latest superfood trend?

Although yacón has only been widely available since the 1980s, its health benefits are nothing new in South America where it has been cultivated for centuries. Andean folk medicine uses the root for treating kidney and liver conditions as well as diabetes and digestion problems. Research into the plant’s antihyperglycemic properties has also placed yacón in the spotlight in recent times.

In Europe and North America, it is most commonly available in the form of syrup and dietary supplements. Just like artichokes and asparagus, the yacón root is rich in inulin, which is a starchy sugar not digestible by the human body. The plant therefore makes an ideal natural sweetener for those concerned with weight loss or diabetes, while also remaining a versatile option for snacks, salads, and stews.


Sources: Wikipedia, The Guardian, Cultivariable

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