Yacon is a distant relative of the sunflower. With white or yellowish transparent flesh, the root has little variability. Its name comes from the Quechua word yaku alluding to the root’s high water content. The roots are eaten raw and are sweet, low in calories, with a juicy flesh similar to that of an apple or watermelon.
In the Andes, yacon is often grated and squeezed through a cloth to make a sweet refreshing drink. In Spanish colonial times it was used as a food for sailors.
Today, yacon is especially sought after for its health properties. The roots contain oligofructose, a sugar that the human body does not metabolise. It is the main ingredient used to make syrup for diabetes patients. The leaves are used to make infusions and pills for lowering cholesterol.
There is growing interest in the crop worldwide and commercialization has increased significantly over the past decade. Although small-scale production dominates, exports of yacon products to Japan, the European Union, and the US are increasing : crop export revenues for Peru reached over US$ 620,000 in 2010, up from just over US$ 20,000 in 2001.
Yacon also retains its crunchy texture during cooking and so makes a good addition to Asian stir-fried dishes. It has been introduced successfully to Japan, where about 100 hectares are grown across the country. Japanese scientists are considering developing yacon as a source for purified fructan, and a variety of processed products such as fermented pickles, dried slices, and fructose.