Could ancient Peruvian crops hold the key to developing new treatments for type 2 diabetes?

What if nutritious food was also tasty, accessible, ethically sourced and a potential tool for the treatment of non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes? This sounds like utopia and yet it’s not! In this article I will explore how all the points raised above are currently being investigated and turned into vibrant study material by ambitious researchers and enlightened entrepreneurs.

Type 2 diabetes, which some people, although rare, inherit at birth and others develop later in life, can often be dealt with by following dietary recommendations, without the need of more invasive pharmaceutical therapies.

Ancient Peruvian crops, among which we find yacón and purple corn, seem to constitute an access key to an exciting world of scientific research which could pave the way for the development of new treatments of type 2 diabetes. Through the production and promotion of ‘scientifically advanced functional ingredients’ derived from ancient Peruvian crops, a team of researchers from University of Aberdeen aim to radically revolutionise our experience as aware consumers and health seekers.

The University of Aberdeen’s Rowett Institute has secured the support of Better Food for All programme: an initiative promoted by Innovate UK with the aim of ‘developing innovative solutions to address significant nutrition challenges’ (https://iuk.ktn-uk.org/opportunities/better-food-for-all-innovation-for-improved-nutrition/ ). The Rowett Institute team is currently researching the composition and the nutritional values of the abovementioned ancient crops with the aim of recreating their most nutritious and beneficial qualities and incorporating them in our daily diet through the production of ingredients such as yacón syrup.

The Rowett institute has also partnered with Perubien, a company funded by Luciana Gaspar Zamora, that has at heart the mission of ‘revolutionis[ing] global nutrition […] by seeking out exotic crops with extraordinary nutritional properties’, while prioritizing sustainability and promoting the research around ‘ethically sourced ingredients that support optimal health and enable individuals to live their best lives’ (https://www.linkedin.com/company/perubien/).

Zamora’s care for sustainable research methods and materials has been enthusiastically welcomed by Dr Madalina Neacsu, Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett Institute, who has declared that the project ‘will engage a zero-waste approach, contributing to a circular nutrition, a greener economy and improved sustainable health’ (https://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/22372/#:~:text=Together%20they%20have%20won%20a%20competitive%20Innovate%20UK,a%20range%20of%20crops%20to%20rival%20today%E2%80%99s%20farmers .).

But let’s have a look at the two “superfoods” mentioned above to get a better idea of what their “natural superpowers” are, and how to best integrate them in our diet. The yacón, also known as Peruvian ground apple, is a species of perennial daisy characterized by sweet-tasting roots. They owe their sugary flavour to the presence of oligofructose, an oligosaccharide fructan that started to be commercialized in the ‘80s in response to the demand for healthier alternatives to traditional, more refined sweeteners.

A 2003 study from the Czech University of Agriculture in Prague revealed how the presence in yacón of fructooligosaccharides makes its consumption beneficial for the health and good functioning of our colon (Lachman et Al. http://pse.agriculturejournals.cz/artkey/pse-200306-0007_yacon-smallanthus-sonchifolia-poepp-et-endl-h-robinson-chemical-composition-and-use-a-review.php ). Yacón’s qualities come in handy when those suffering from digestive problems are concerned, considering that fructants, which are not digested in the small intestine, ‘travel to the large intestine, where they improve the gut microflora by acting as a source for good bacteria’ (WebMD Editorial Contributors, 2022). Furthermore, thanks to the presence of inulin, which has a low glycaemic index and ‘doesn’t cause spikes in blood sugar’ regular yacón consumption ‘may decrease insulin resistance’ (ibidem) providing a natural, healthier, but still rich-in-taste alternative to refined sugars for those affected by diabetes.

Purple corn, also known as blue corn, has been cultivated in Peru since pre-Inca times, and for thousands of years it has been used by indigenous peoples to fulfil the most disparate needs: from making bread to preparing drinks as old as “chicha morada”: a mixture of purple corn, fruits and spices which is known for ‘dat[ing] back to before the creation of the Incan empire’ (https://www.indigo-herbs.co.uk/natural-health-guide/benefits/purple-corn ) and for being packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

This type of corn is characterized by a deep shade of purple which is the direct result of the presence of anthocyanins: an extremely powerful antioxidant. A 2003 study published by the American Society for Nutritional Sciences has revealed that ‘the use of purple corn color (PCC) as a functional food factor, may have important implications for preventing obesity and diabetes’ (2003, Tsuda et. A.), due to its nutritional values, which include lower fats and higher proteins in comparison to traditional sweetcorn.

In conclusion, if researchers will find a way to “modernize” Peruvian ancient crops, making more accessibility, in terms of both affordability and availability of the raw material (and note that the two things are strictly interconnected), this will imply a revolution of the western food culture as we know it.

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