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Yacon is a distant relative of the sunflower with edible tubers and leaves. Th syrup from this sweet root is raising eyebrows in the medical community and natural product world for its medicinal qualities. It 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.
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The yacón plant grows in the Andes mountains of South America and has a long history of medicinal use—for diabetes and digestive disorders—among indigenous people living in these areas. Yacón syrup is rich in prebiotics, a type of fiber that fuels the growth of healthy bacteria in the human gastrointestinal tract. Yacón is a good source of polyphenols as well, which are nutrients found in a variety of plant foods and beverages, such as red wine, green tea, and berries. Polyphenol-rich diets are associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
The major type of prebiotics found in yacón are FOS (fructooligosaccharides) also found in many common plant foods, such as leeks, onions, and asparagus. FOS are not readily digested and so reach the colon largely intact. Once in the colon, FOS are fermented to short-chain fatty acids, which support healthful gut bacteria growth and inhibit the growth of harmful, disease-causing bacteria.
FOS provide just 2 calories per gram, instead of the usual 4 for most carbohydrates. This means that as a sweetener, yacón syrup provides about 20 calories per tablespoon, compared with 48 calories for a tablespoon of sugar, and 64 for honey. FOS are soluble fiber, and can increase stool bulk and potentially minimize constipation.
Studies in mice and rats support the notion that FOS from yacón root may improve insulin sensitivity and levels of cholesterol and other blood fats in animals with diabetes, but much more research is needed to better understand if these results are applicable to humans.
Of the three human studies available at the time of writing, two examined safety and short-term effects on how quickly food moves through the gastrointestinal tract (colon transit time). One small, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in 55 obese women does suggest that FOS from yacón syrup may improve the odds of losing pounds. According to this study, 140 mg of FOS from yacón syrup per kg of body weight per day (that’s 60 mg per pound) improved fasting insulin levels, body weight, and waist circumference. On average, the yacón syrup group lost 33 pounds in three months, while the control group gained about three and a half pounds in the same period.
For reference, 60 mg of FOS per pound translates to around 11 grams of FOS for a person weighing 180 pounds, or a little more than one-third of an ounce of FOS from yacón syrup per day.
The early word on yacón syrup is certainly interesting, though much more research is needed to better understand how this sweetener works and who might best benefit from using it. Keep the following in mind before deciding if yacón syrup is right for you:
(Dig Liver Dis 2002;34:S111–20; Clin Nutr 2009;28:182–7; J Diabetes Metab Disord 2013;12:28)