Every diabetic has a strict hierarchy of artificial sweeteners. For me, Sweet’N Low is firmly at the bottom, cursed by its chemical, saccharine taste. Aspartame-based Equal is next, followed by the top of the artificial sweetener pack, Splenda — made from sucralose, a substance my roommate once described to me –accurately, I later found out — as “chlorinated sugar.”
Given the choice, I’d much rather use something more natural — but despite my experiments with stevia and agave, I’ve never found a substitute to wean me off my yellow-packet habit.
So I decided to try something totally new: Yacon powder — a sugar substitute made from a South American plant whose crisp, tuber-like root is renowned for its sweet taste. Look up yacon (pronounced “ya-cone“) online and you’ll find glowing reviews calling it a pre-biotic, low-calorie, low-glycemic super food.
My yacon powder came from The Raw Food World, an online store designed to “help you on your journey to ultimate health.” This tagline alone made me suspicious, a feeling that was made worse by the free samples of hemp seeds that came with my order, along with a small packet of Scent of Samadhi herbal perfume powder. Marked as a meditation aide, it smelled remarkably like my Great Aunt Marcie, a woman better known for her Charlie cologne than for any inclination toward Buddhism.
I didn’t let that stop me. Setting my goodies aside — and sequestering Samadhi and her Scent in a sealed Ziploc — I proceeded to the actual bag of yacon powder. Floury, with a yellow-brown color reminiscent of the desert, it tasted like it smelled: sweet and yammy, with a starchy mouthfeel that made me suspicious of its low-glycemic claims — I felt like I was eating a ground-up sweet potato. But before making a judgment call on whether yacon powder was a good choice for diabetics, I decided to see whether I liked its taste to begin with. Setting the bag down on the counter, I prepared several experiments.
Experiment #1: Tea
Ever since I got Type 1 diabetes, I’ve started drinking more caffeinated beverages — not because I like the caffeine itself, but because if you add enough sweetener and milk to a cup of coffee, it’s possible to create something that tastes like warm ice cream. This morning, though, I felt like a cup of tea — so I decided to swap out my Splenda with a healthy spoonful of yacon.
The texture of the powder made me feel like I was adding flour to my tea. As it dissolved it created a murky dark fluid whose appearance — though, thankfully, not odor — was reminiscent of beef bouillon. The resulting tea was thicker than usual, leaving behind some solids that coated my tongue after I swallowed it and making me decide that, were I to try this particular experiment again, I would splurge on some yacon syrup instead. (Either way, however, the tea would probably be a bit yammy.)
The verdict: Less gross than I’d expected, despite a top note of tuber. Definitely don’t use the powder.
Experiment #2: Yogurt Smoothie
Diabetes has turned me into a creature of habit — if the world were just, I would be getting a bulk discount from the people who make Fage yogurt, the thick, unsweetened Greek creation that I’ve been eating daily for more than five years. Recently I decided to switch it up by adding frozen fruit and turning breakfast into a smoothie, my own low-carb TCBY. Usually I toss in a packet of Splenda to sweeten it, but for the sake of this project, I decided to skip the berries and the Splenda and go entirely with yacon — in addition to its echoes of sweet potato, it has a molasses-like flavor that I thought, like red bean ice cream, might stand up well on its own.
I needed to add a couple of ice cubes to give the smoothie bulk and texture, but besides that, the yacon was an easy substitution. The resulting smoothie was more liquidy than my previous versions, probably because of the lack of fiber, but it didn’t taste bad. It didn’t taste particularly good, either. But hey. After five years of eating the same thing for breakfast, any change is welcome.
The verdict: If you enjoy sweet potato pie or red bean ice cream, you might like this smoothie. If you do not want to mix your Thanksgiving yams with breakfast, however, sweeten your shakes with something else.
Experiment #3: Baking
The recipe was for low-sugar gluten-free zucchini muffins, and I’ll admit that I was skeptical: if you have the ability to digest gluten, I don’t see why you wouldn’t eat it. (For me, a freshly baked baguette ranks among life’s finest pleasures.) Add a “low-sugar” and you’ve really lost me — the only way to make a recipe sound worse would be to label it as vegan.
Luckily, this recipe called for eggs and buttermilk, so it had two strikes against it instead of three. Or, at least that’s what I thought until I ran off to the store in search of almond flour — one of its main ingredients — and discovered how much the stuff costs. Was a batch of six gluten-free, low-sugar muffins really worth $10? Plus, as perhaps is not surprising for a substance made of ground-up nuts, it was very high fat. 14 grams per quarter cup serving? I f I wanted that kind of calorie count, I’d take the insulin and have ice cream instead.
I eventually decided to skip the almond flour and use wheat — a bold move made possible by the fact that I do not yet have celiac disease. However, there was a flaw in my plan: I was supposed to be testing the recipe’s effect on my blood sugar — and as any diabetic can tell you, flour, unlike almonds, has carbohydrates. In fact, its high level of carbs is exactly why I abandoned most recreational baking to begin with.
And there was another issue: except for an egg yolk and one tablespoon of canola oil, the recipe didn’t call for any other source of fat. This, I could tell, was going to be a problem. But it was too late to go back — my muffins were in their tins, ready to be baked. Just before slipping them into the oven, I tried a spoonful of my low-fat concoction and was pleased, if surprised, to discover that it actually almost tasted good — and that the yammy flavor of the yacon finally seemed at home, subtle but pleasant, sweet but not overwhelmingly so.
Verdict: Unfortunately, my muffins did not live up to that moment of hope — and I doubt it was entirely due to my debacle with the flour. I do not know the exact chemistry of what happens when yacon powder is put into hot ramekins with excessive amounts of zucchini, but I do know this: it loses its sweetness. In fact, it loses its flavor entirely. I was left with six zucchini cupcakes so dense and tasteless that they could have been lobbed at protestors as a non-lethal means of crowd control. Great news for riot police; not so good for breakfast.
I considered trying the recipe again — this time with almond flour — but decided first to see if there were any truth behind yacon’s low-glycemic claims. Its sweetness comes mostly from inulin, an indigestible sugar that’s low in calories and has an allegedly gentle effect on blood sugar. It’s also supposed to be a “prebiotic” — a substance that helps friendly bacteria in your gut and, therefore, presumably helps your immune system and digestion.
The claims sounded great, but just as I find it hard to believe politicians when they promise their bills will be budget-neutral, I wasn’t convinced that the starchy powder would leave my blood sugar unaffected — especially when I checked out the nutritional information on a bag of yacon chips and saw that they contained 22 grams of carbohydrates per serving.
But I still made myself a cup of tea, dumping in two tablespoons of yacon powder and drinking it on an empty stomach. Then I waited. Within an hour, my blood sugar had gone from around 90 to 160 and showed no signs of coming down — not as strong an effect as sugar would have had, perhaps, but also not a gentle enough rise to make me willing to accept the taste. Yacon may be the wonder food of the Andes but, unfortunately, it’s not for me.
A final note: the yacon plant is a relative of a root vegetable called the sunchoke (also known as the Jerusalem artichoke) — an important family connection because the Jerusalem artichoke, like many foods that contain high amounts of inulin (and, unfortunately, many sugar-free foods in general), is notorious for causing flatulence. Trust me on this.