Could ancient Peruvian crops promote a healthy gut and help those living with type 2 diabetes?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Hesperiden
Image: Getty/Hesperiden

Related tags Peru Diabetes Nutrition Obesity Ancient grains

The Andes has traditionally been a source of excellent food and medicinal plants. Now science is turning to ancient Peruvian crops to explore their benefits in boosting the gut health and preventing and treating type 2 diabetes.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen’s Rowett institute have teamed up with a company seeking to revolutionise global nutrition through the development of scientifically advanced functional ingredients, to examine the health benefits of non-conventional crops and to develop ways of incorporating them into everyday food.

UK-based company Perubien focuses on promoting the health benefits of these Peruvian crops to diversify UK nutrition. From November it will work with a Rowett scientists using functional food, natural products and microbiology expertise to turn these more unusual crops into specialised ingredients and will study their systemic and microbial metabolism and health benefits.

Together they have won a competitive Innovate UK grant through the Better Food For All programme to research Peruvian crops such as purple corn and yacon, which have their origins in the agricultural wonderland created by the Peruvian ancestors half a millennium ago when they cultivated a range of crops to rival today’s farmers.

The potential health benefits of consuming yacon

Yacon means ‘water root’ in Quechua, a pre-Hispanic language from Peru and its tubers were historically highly valued as a wild source of thirst-quenching refreshment for travellers but in recent years it has been shown to benefit the bacteria in the intestinal tract and colon that boost the immune system and aid digestion.

Its liquid can also be drawn off and concentrated to produce yacon syrup which has the sweetness of honey or other plant-derived sweeteners like maple syrup, but without the calories.

Purple corn contains compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, important for those with or at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Turning yacon into specialised ingredients and new food products

The project will focus on incorporating yacon and purple corn specialised ingredients into palatable food prototypes and new food products which will enable specialised food and drink manufacturers to develop new innovative foods.

There is a growing awareness of the link between diet and type 2 diabetes. Without intervention, it is expected 5.5 million people in the UK along could be living with diabetes by 2030. At the same time, a diverse diet is paramount to maintain a diverse and healthy gut microbiota, and there is an increased awareness among people to eat foods which promote the health of the gut.

This collaboration therefore aims to help people incorporate these rising stars into specialised nutritional therapies and via the diversified ingredients market into their everyday diets by transforming them into more everyday products.

Luciana Gaspar Zamora, the founder of Perubien said: “The Rowett Institute is a world leader in nutrition research. It has considerable experience in functional food formulation and unique expertise in gut microbiome research; they were the obvious partner for this research.”

“Of course, there are studies that recognise the health benefits of non-conventional fruit and vegetables but there is a lack of effective development of functional ingredients designed to prevent specific diseases and be part of nutritional therapies.”

Madalina Neacsu, Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett Institute has vast experience on functional food development in both academia and industry contributing to the compilation of dossiers for successful ESFA-approved health claims, to patenting and licencing technologies for functional ingredients and fair-trade nutraceuticals.

She said: “Developing functional food ingredients is a tool used to translate key findings from human studies into tangible solutions as part of specialised nutritional therapies to tackle non communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes and to promote a healthy gut. Furthermore, for the food reformulation in the project we will engage a zero-waste approach, contributing to a circular nutrition, a greener economy and improved sustainable health.”​ 

Asked to elaborate on the types of food applications they think yacon could be used in, the researchers told us: 

"Our project involves the design of innovative purple corn and yacon-rich ingredients that will allow food manufacturers to develop specialised food and drink products for people at risk or living with Type 2 diabetes and for the promotion of a healthy gut (which ultimately will benefit the health in general). The applications are to incorporate the ingredients in wet and dry formulations such as drinks, smoothies, yoghurts, and even baked foods. This will be up to the food manufacturers afterwards to decide. We plan to work with food and drink manufacturers to help develop their products to ensure that the functionality of the ingredients and bioavailability of key bioactive is kept."

"This project promotes food innovation, product development, and targeted consumer demand while diversifying and boosting dietary macronutrients (i.e., fibre), agricultural biodiversity, and the sustainability of food production."

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