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Sweet root good for dieters, diabetics

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LIMA, Peru (Reuters) -- Imagine a sweet treat that doesn't make you fat -- indeed is positively good for you -- and that you can indulge in even if you're diabetic.

Peru, the land that gave the world potatoes, is home to yacon, a tasty root which scientists say is good for the gut, potentially safeguards against cancer, helps absorption of calcium and vitamins and can lessen the blood sugar peaks from eating sweet foods that are a problem for diabetics.

Although it has little visual appeal -- yacon has dark brown skin and looks like an elongated potato -- its superfood status has turned it into a promising natural health food for exporters in this poor Andean country.

"It's definitely a superproduct. The thing is, people don't know much about how to use it or what its properties are," said businessman Giancarlo Zamudio, whose company, Naturandina, aims to start sending four $57,000 consignments a month of tinned yacon chunks to Japan by the end of 2003 to flavor yogurt.

Yacon, which is native to an Andean region stretching from Venezuela to northern Argentina, has a crunchy texture like a water chestnut and is refreshingly sweet and juicy. Left in the sun, its sweetness intensifies, and it can be eaten as a fruit, consumed in drinks, syrups, cakes or pickles or in stir-fries.

Though packed with sugar, its principal appeal to the health conscious lies in the fact that the sugar in question is mainly oligofructose, which cannot be absorbed by the body.

That means yacon is naturally low-calorie -- a jar of yacon syrup contains half the calories as a same-sized jar of honey -- and its sugar does not raise blood glucose levels.

In addition, oligofructose promotes beneficial bacteria in the colon. Certain modern health products, such as so-called bio-yogurts, have oligofructose added to achieve the same effect, but yacon already has that quality naturally.

"It's a diet food and a diabetic food," said yacon expert Michael Hermann, leader of the Andean roots and tubers project at the Lima-based International Potato Center.

Ancient roots, new discoveries

Yacon -- the root of a tall, leafy plant with tiny yellow sunflowers that Inca "chasquis," or messengers, pulled from the pathside to slake their thirst -- is thought to have originated in a region stretching from central Peru to northern Bolivia.

In the 1980s, it was introduced to New Zealand and from there to Japan, and while it is now grown in other countries such as Brazil and Thailand, Peru has the greatest number of varieties, and is the world's biggest producer with an estimated 1,480 acres under cultivation.

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It was in Japan, Hermann said, that yacon's oligofructose qualities were discovered. "The Japanese also found out that if the leaves are used in tea, it has the effect of avoiding the peaks that you have when eating sugary or starchy food, when your blood sugar level goes up violently," he said.

That is a problem for diabetics, who have high blood sugar levels and whose bodies do not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that would normally be released to process food.

"It appears that the tea lessens the (sugary) peaks," he said. Animal trials on that are under way in Argentina.

Hermann said yacon roots themselves had not been proven to have the same palliative effect as the leaves. Even so, yacon is now popularly associated in Peru with diabetes, though other benefits -- such as its laxative quality and ability to help prevent colon cancer and osteoporosis -- are less well known.

Export potential

Although cheap and easy to grow, Hermann admits yacon -- which has very little protein, very little fat, large amounts of potassium and a high antioxidant content -- can never be a world crop.

But it has gone from virtual obscurity 20 years ago, when Andean families just farmed a few rows for their own use, to being a common sight at Lima markets and now even available, peeled and sliced, in supermarkets.

Hermann himself was instrumental in making yacon marketable. A syrup he had helped develop with farmers from Oxapampa in central Peru won top prize in 2000 in an annual competition for new products to boost the incomes of the rural poor. The $8,000 prize funded the syrup processing plant.

Thomas Bernet, another International Potato Center scientist, said yacon could have a industrial future -- purely as a source of oligofructose to be added to other products. But costs would have to come down substantially to compete with chicory, the main such provider, making it more viable as a specialty health food.

And exporters say that's where Peru, with its numerous original varieties and Andean climate, can score.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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