A perennial plant, yacon (botanical name Smallanthus sonchifolius) has a supple stalk growing up to a height of 2 meters. The flowers of this plant appear at the terminal branches and their crown has a yellowish orange hue. The root system of yacon comprises numerous elongated roots that are large, tuberous, and fleshy. Usually, these roots of this plant are 8 inches long and about 4 inches across. They possess a sugary flavour and may number anything between four and 20 giving rise to a widespread system of slim fiber-like rootlets.
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Normally the tubers have a regular shape, but sometimes they may come in irregular shapes owing to the force of other roots or meeting up with stones. The color of the root bark may vary from cinnamon to deep brown. Generally, a yacon tuber weighs anything from 200 grams t0 500 grams (about half lb to one lb), but some tubers may grow larger and may weigh up to 4 pounds. Inside, these edible roots or tubers have a typical yellowish-orange or cream hued pulp and some of them may even have purple patterns. They are extremely succulent and possess a sweet flavour.
Yacon produces deep green leaves, similar to those of celery. The flowers of this perennial herb are akin to those of daisy with their color varying from yellow to orange. Yacon produces male as well as female flowers that are insect pollinated. When fresh, the peel of the tuber varies from tan to pale yellow, but the color soon changes to deep purple when it comes in contact with the air.
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During the initial stages of evolution, farmers in the Andes had identified the worth of yacon, especially as a crop cultivated for food. Several centuries prior to the Incas, people discovered yacon in the graveyards. The oldest written document that mentions yacon dates back to 1615 when a Quechua nobleman called Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala incorporated the plant into a list comprising 55 indigenous crops grown by people inhabiting the region around the Andes.
In the traditional medicine of South America, yacon tubers are consumed raw in the form of a diuretic to treat problems related to the kidneys and bladder. In Bolivia, people make a decoction with the yacon leaves and use it to treat cystitis, nephrosis and hepatosis. On the other hand, Peruvians use the leaves to prepare a warm poultice and apply it externally for treating rheumatism and myalgia. People in Brazil brew the yacon leaves to prepare a tea, which is drunk as a natural medication for treating diabetes.
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Currently, the root of the yacon is sold in the form of a fruit alongside other fruits, such as apples and pineapples in the markets in the Andean region. The tubers of this plant are delightfully crisp and sweet tasting. Drying the tubers in the sun till their skin becomes somewhat wrinkled helps to enhance their flavour. Subsequently, the tubers are peeled and consumed raw, sliced and added to salads, steamed or even fried. Some people even extract the juice of the tubers and concentrate it to prepare syrups or sweeteners, something akin to dark corn syrup. Alternatively, the tubers may be dried further and subsequently concentrated to prepare solid deep brown blocks of sweets, locally known as chancaca.
Apart from the inhabitants of the Andean region, many people across the globe have now started using yacon. The regular use of this herb worldwide is basically attributed to its anti-hyperglycemic results. Yacon contains fructo-oligosaccharides, which mean that when you consume this tuber your body does not take in any simple sugar. Precisely speaking, the presence of this natural compound in yacon tubers works to reduce the quantity of glucose produced in your liver, thereby resulting in a change to reduced fasting sugar rates. Therefore, yacon consumption is extremely beneficial for people with diabetes. Currently, scientists are examining the potential of yacon in enhancing insulin sensitivity in our body. This is one more health benefit offered by yacon, especially for people suffering from diabetes or those who are prone to develop this condition.
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Yacon also offers numerous benefits for the health of the heart. Among these, the elevated potassium levels of yacon are foremost and, hence, need to be mentioned first. Being an excellent vasodilator, potassium helps to widen the blood vessels, thereby lessening the pressure on the cardiovascular system. In other words, this denotes augmented blood circulation and supply of additional oxygen to the various body parts. At the same time, it helps to lessen the risks of developing cardiovascular diseases, such as atherosclerosis, strokes and heart attacks. In addition, potassium is beneficial for maintaining a steady balance of various fluids in the cells and tissues of our body. Essential mineral sodium also helps to normalize the fluid balance.
Besides the importance of yacon for people with diabetes, this herb is also beneficial for others who require controlling their blood cholesterol levels. Findings of a number of studies have demonstrated that eating yacon tubers generally helps to reduce the levels of fasting triglyceride as well as low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad cholesterol"). This means that the polysaccharides called fructooligosaccharides, which form a major constituent of yacon, are helpful in lowering the lipid levels as well as putting off the LDL form accumulating inside the blood vessels. This, in turn, is effective in preventing an assortment of heart problems, especially coronary heart disease.
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Several researchers have asserted that consuming yacon may possibly help in augmenting weight loss. However, this is a highly debated topic in some circles. Unlike many tubers, yacon does not contain starch and, hence, consuming the sweet tubers of this plant makes you feel filled, but does not provide you with too many calories to be burnt. As a result, it is believed that consumption of yacon helps to reduce your weight in general. However, yacon possesses mild laxative properties owing to its reasonable content of dietary fiber and this may be the other reason why consuming it helps in reducing body weight. Moreover, when you consume yacon, you feel satiated which prevents one from overeating.
It is interesting to note that though fructooligosaccharides are not absorbed by our body, the healthy or beneficial bacteria present in the gut definitely find them delectable! Yacon encloses certain probiotic substances that help to promote the growth as well as health of micro flora present in our bodies. Taking proper care of the probiotic bacteria in our body and ensuring their health enables us to depend less on vitamin and mineral intakes. When one optimizes his/ her food absorption levels, they can get more value of their money - the money spent on other healthy foods that they consume. In addition, the mild laxative action of yacon helps to lessen constipation, bloating as well as other grave gastrointestinal disorders, for instance gastric ulcers as well as colon cancers.
Findings of one study have revealed that the natural compounds present in the yacon tuber may possibly also inhibit the growth of carcinogenic cells. Although this study is still in its preliminary stage, it is important to note that yacon consumption does not result in any adverse effects whatsoever. Therefore, you can safely incorporate this herb into your diet.
In our body, glucose supplies originate from the liver and, therefore, it is prudent that we control the glucose levels in our bloodstream by consuming yacon, as it influences the liver in some manner. In effect, findings of a number of studies have demonstrated that consuming yacon in appropriate amounts, especially when you take it in conjunction with milk thistle, helps to put off accumulation of fat inside the liver and, at the same time, facilitates maintaining the health as well as proper functioning of the liver.
Apart from its therapeutic uses, yacon tubers are also used for culinary purposes. The crispy and succulent tubers of the plant have a fine flavour that reminds one of melon or apple. Moreover, the tuber is wonderfully sweet and its sweetness increases when dried or with storage. Normally, the tubers are peeled and their flesh is consumed raw. They are also used fresh or after drying them in sunlight. Yacon tubers can also be consumed after steaming, roasting, or baking them. The juice of the tubers is extracted and concentrated to prepare syrup. People in Peruvian Andes, which is one of the highest producers of yacon worldwide, process the tubers of this plant to prepare almost anything. In fact, you can find yacon pancake syrup, jam, soft drinks, pudding and even breakfast cereals being sold in the local markets there.
Belonging to the sunflower family, yacon grows well in its native - the valleys of the Andes, which are warm and temperate. Nevertheless, this herb can also be found growing in higher altitudes - as high as 3200 meters above the sea level. Yacon is indigenous to the lower regions of Andes as well as the cloud forests located in South America. This plant can be found growing in the wild in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. Currently, this tuberous herb is cultivated extensively for its edible roots all over the Andean region in South America. Moreover, the plant has also been exported to various countries like Taiwan, Japan, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, and also the United States in the form of a new root crop that is edible and tasty too.
It is quite easy to grow yacon in kitchen gardens in places having climatic conditions with just mild frosts.
Yacon is propagated by its roots. You can plant the growing points of yacon roots in a properly prepared bed during the beginning of spring, close to the last expected date of frost in your region. Although the aerial parts of the plant are damaged due to frosts, the roots of the plants remain intact unless the temperature drops well below the freezing point. Very similar to Jerusalem artichokes, yacon also grows very vigorously. The growth of the plants is best when you supply them with appropriate fertilizers.
Once the initial few frosts have passed, the tops of the plant will wither away, while the roots will be ready for being excavated. Ideally, you should allow some part of the roots in the ground keeping in view their propagation in the following spring. On the other hand, you may also store the roots in the refrigerator or bury them in a safe place that would not be affected by frosts and plant them in the next spring. Usually, you can dig up tubers of usable size early on in the season, but the flavour of the tubers will be sweeter when they mature and also when they have been laid open to some frost.
Chemical analysis of yacon leaves has revealed that they enclose various amounts of chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, protocatechuic acid and ferulic acid, which provides tisanes produced from the leaves the antioxidant and prebiotic properties.
In addition, the tubers also contain an indigestible polysaccharide called fructo-oligosaccharide, which is composed of fructose. Fructooligosaccharides have a sweet flavour, but are not metabolized even after they pass through the human digestive tract. As a result, this polysaccharide is very low in calorie content. In addition, fructooligosaccharides possess a prebiotic effect. In other words, they are exploited by the beneficial bacteria present in the gut and promote the health of the colon, besides facilitating digestion.
The tubers of yacon are edible and consumed raw like any other fruit. Alternatively, the juice of the tubers is extracted and boiled to prepare syrups. Traditionally, the leaves of yacon are used to make a decoction and one cup (250 ml) of this decoction/ tea is drunk twice or thrice daily.
Yacon leaves have shown to possess the aptitude to bring down the levels of blood sugar. However, people suffering from diabetes should consult their physician prior to using yacon for their condition. In addition, they need to keep an eye on the levels of their blood sugar regularly because it may be necessary to adjust the medications for diabetes. Taking yacon leaf formulations together with other diabetic medications may have an affect on insulin and other diabetic drugs.
While it is a rare incident, there have been a number of reports that state that consumption of yacon roots have resulted in allergies.