Intro: What is Yacon? (Smallanthus sonchifolius)
Smallanthus is an order of plants found in both South and North America. Probably the most famous of the smallanthus species is commonly called Yacon. Yacon is a distant relative of the sunflower with edible tubers and leaves.
Benefits & Uses of Yacon:
– Yacon contains fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which pass through the digestive track unmetabolized, providing few calories1. The sugars, however, are metabolized by the bifidobacteria in the large intestine and contribute to improved digestions and absorption of vitamins, such as B-complex. The undigested portion of yacon serves as prebiotic-food for “friendly” bacteria.
History & Traditional Usage:
Roots in the Andes:
It is believed that Yacon originated from the high Andean Region now known as eastern Bolivia and southern Peru. Legend has it that Inca messengers would dig up the succulent tubers from beside the trail to slake their thirst. Yacon is currently grown from Ecuador to Argentina and Brazil as a staple food crop by many indigenous peoples, some of which have used the plant ceremonially as well.
While it is noted that there are a few distinct varieties of Yacon found in Peru, little if any serious breeding work has been done on the crop and it is considered a landrace at best. It is only recently, thanks to the efforts of a few intrepid plantspeople, that this unique cultivar is finding its way into the fields and beds of adventurous farmers and gardeners throughout North America. We have our former Research Director Alan Kapuler to thank for providing our original planting stock.
How Sweet It Is…and Healthy too!
Fresh Yacon tubers are crisp and juicy with a delicate flavor reminiscent of apple or melon and a surprising sweetness that increases in storage. They can be eaten raw, (fresh or dried) steamed, baked, roasted, or juiced. The somewhat bitter skin can be scrubbed off with a stiff brush, peeled with a vegetable peeler, or removed after baking. One of our favorite recipes is to simply chop the peeled tubers into bite-size pieces and sauté them in a little butter until the sugar begins to caramelize. Serve with mashed potatoes topped with fresh parsley.
While satisfyingly sweet and flavorful, Yacon remains low in calories. This is due to the fact that the sugar contains high levels of oligofructose (inulin), a form of sugar that is not metabolized readily by the human body.
Yacon is considered by many to be a superfood of the future.
A Commercial Future?
After a failed attempt at industrial scale cultivation and commercialization in Southern Europe in the 1930’s, Yacon is now emerging as a commercial crop in South America as well as in New Zealand, Japan and Korea. The tubers are now commonly found in markets in Lima and is even available peeled and sliced in supermarkets there. One Peruvian company is exporting tins of chunked Yacon to Japan where it is added to yogurt.
In another commercial initiative, a group of rural farmers from Oxapampa, Peru, working with Scientists from the Andean Roots and Tubers project at the Lima-based International Potato Center have developed a process for creating a syrup from Yacon tubers that can be added to other products as a healthy, low calorie sweetener. While still in its nascent stages, commercial Yacon production will likely increase as refinements in plant breeding and production take place.