For Susan Eapen, a diabetic since 2008, managing blood sugar levels was a constant challenge. She tried the low-carb, high-fat keto diet, but gave it up after having dizzy spells.
She cut down on her carbohydrate intake – using almond flour instead of wheat flour – and supplemented meals with eggs and vegetables. But preparing a daily meal tailored for her own needs was not easy.
“I found it exhausting to put in extra effort to make something for me,” said the retired banker from Trivandrum, in India’s Kerala state. After sharing the family meal, though, she had high blood sugar, felt tired and had a constant need to urinate.
Eapen’s life changed in 2018 after reading a newspaper report on Jackfruit365, a start-up company producing flour made from green unripe jackfruit that is freeze dried and powdered. James Joseph, the man behind this enterprise, was changing the perception of the cumbersome jackfruit growing in every backyard in Kerala.
Neutral in taste and odour free, the jackfruit powder is easy to use in any cuisine. Joseph commissioned a clinical study in 2016 by Sydney University’s Glycemic Index Research Service (SUGiRS) – one of the world’s best for studies on glycaemic index, which measures how fast and how much a food raises blood glucose levels.
Foods with higher index values raise blood sugar more rapidly than foods with lower glycaemic index values.
The study showed that 30g of green Jackfruit365, about a cup, has a lower glycaemic load (17) than one cup of cooked rice (29) or two wheat rotis, Indian flatbreads (27).
Eapen ordered the jackfruit flour and has been mixing it into her batter to make appam and dosas.
“The flour helped control blood sugar without much effort. Unlike almond flour required for a low carbohydrate diet, this is affordable and easily available. Preparing meals is no longer an effort,” she says, adding she has been off diabetes medicines since 2018.
“My sugar levels are in control. I am no longer tired or waking up post midnight sweating profusely.”
Joseph commissioned another study that was published in the American Diabetes Association journal Diabetes in June this year, involving type 2 diabetes patients.
Participants took 30g of green jackfruit flour daily as a substitute for an equal volume of rice or wheat flour. After 90 days, there was a significant decrease in their blood sugar levels.
Oommen V Oommen, a retired biology professor from the University of Kerala who has been diabetic for 15 years, also found the jackfruit flour helpful in lowering glucose levels.
“In three months, my readings dropped substantially,” said the 71-year-old, who adds a spoonful of the flour daily into his herbal drink.
“It helped in reducing my insulin dosage, from 14 to 10 units in the morning and from 10 to eight units in the evening. It’s not a medicine, but as a food supplement, it helps manage diabetes.”
Vinu Nair, a marathon runner from Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India was surprised to find he had high blood sugar levels during an annual check- up. He started taking medicines for diabetes.
Then his paediatrician wife began to mix a small amount of the flour into the mix for their Indian breads. Within three months there was a considerable drop in his blood sugar readings.
“That motivated me to continue,” says Nair. Not only are his blood-sugar levels and triglycerides under control; the flour’s high fibre content helps keep him regular. And in May, he stopped taking medicine for diabetes.
Dr Thomas Varughese, a senior consultant in surgical oncology and reconstructive surgery at Renai Medicity hospital, in Kochi, Kerala, says the jackfruit flour added to cancer patients’ diets also helped them through chemotherapy.
Results of the study he did in 2018 were published in the magazine of the National Library of Medicine.
He prescribed 30gm of green jackfruit flour daily for his patients who were part of a study group.
“My patients’ biggest trauma is the side effects of chemotherapy,” said Varughese. “Chemotherapeutic drugs while being aggressive are also toxic.
''They also act on other rapidly dividing cells of the body, leading to low WBC (white blood corpuscles) count, hair loss, mouth and throat ulcers, respiratory infection, fungal infection and diarrhoea.”
Those who had the flour did not experience a decrease in their white blood cell count, and their gut mucosa was protected, Varughese said. The jackfruit flour cannot prevent hair loss or vomiting, though.
“When the WBC count is maintained above normal, patients can take food and water without any issues,” he says, adding that protection of intestinal mucosa prevents diarrhoea.
Since chemotherapy-induced diarrhoea brings patients back to hospital for electrolyte supplements and nutrition, readmission costs are reduced.
Jyothi Rajeev, a breast cancer survivor, was unaware of jackfruit flour until Varughese prescribed it. Initially she mixed it with dosa batter and roti dough, but then started mixing it with water and drinking it in one shot.
“My chemotherapy was so smooth that I did not know how I reached the sixth cycle. Except for hair loss, there were no mouth ulcers, nor nausea or loss of appetite. I could go for my 5km walk every day,” she says.
Varughese said the idea of using jackfruit flour was an “accidental discovery” after he noticed that two of his patients were free from side effects during chemotherapy.
“They told me about including green jackfruit flour in their diet to control diabetes. I decided to try it with other patients. Being a vegetable product, it posed no harm.”
Those who did not have the flour reported side effects, but when they started to take it from the next cycle, they benefited, also.
“My patients lead an active life with regular walks. Even during Covid times they are continuing with chemotherapy. This flour has boosted their immunity.”
Joseph, who developed the jackfruit powder, is not surprised by the findings. “A Jackfruit tree in the yard extends human life by 10 years,” he says, recalling his uncle’s words, that jackfruit “works like a bottle brush for your intestinal walls”.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.