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Diabetes, jackfruit and farmer suicides

James Joseph, June 2, 2015: 21:10 IST
Jackfruit is a shock absorber against farmers’ suicide. It yields well in drought situations.” I was rather shocked when Dr Narayana Gowda, then Vice Chancellor of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru said this to me in October 2013. I was invited to the university to share my plan to make it easier for my fellow professionals living in the cities to include the fibre rich jackfruit in their daily diet.

“Diabetes is a much bigger issue for India than the wastage of jackfruit. Don’t worry about its seasonality, when it is not available in India it is available in South America and we should import if required,” another shocking comment a year later from Dr Abdul Kalam. I was invited for a meeting with Dr Kalam, who was interested to know about my work. What happened between these two comments warrants the attention of the diabetic and medical research community of India and a focused effort will help us to find out if jackfruit really is a shock absorber against the two major crises we are facing in India today.

Dr Narayana’s comments came from the fact that Rs 2,000 crores worth of jackfruits are wasted every year in India, but more importantly, exactly when other crops fail. Like this time of the year when many farmers are in deep financial trouble, HOPCOMS just announced a significant reduction in mango supply due to unseasonal rains, jackfruit supply is not at all affected.

Based on this insight, I started a campaign to create 100 recipes to consume the humble jackfruit in fresh, frozen or freeze-dried form. Aided by the whole-hearted support of leading chefs I managed to get modern recipes replacing potato, meat, tofu and cauliflower. Then a chance meeting with a diabetic patient changed my plans.

On Easter 2014 Fr Brahmanavelil, a parish priest from our village in Kerala narrated a hypoglycemic incident that he had to face after he had the traditional raw jackfruit meal.

This repeated two weeks later even after reducing his insulin dose by half. Next few months I traveled across the country to get to the bottom of this phenomena meeting doctors, scientists, nutritionists and ayurveda experts. From Ayurveda doctors I learnt that raw jackfruit meal was the traditional carbohydrate replacement in Kerala for over 3,000 years till the Portuguese brought tapioca from Brazil.

First breakthrough came from Dr Vivek Garg in Delhi who produced a study report published in Ceylon Medical Journal which shows a normal rise in sugar level but an abnormal decline after 30 minutes, compared to standard meal. The reasons stated are low sugar in raw jackfruit combined with high dietary fibre. When I got raw jackfruit tested it became clear that raw jackfruit has 1/5th sugar level of ripe and is rich in dietary fibre and most of it is insoluble fibre. This is when I met Dr Kalam who said it is already known that low sugar, high fibre meal means low absorption of sugar but what is not known is raw jackfruit can be consumed as a main meal. India is already the diabetic capital of the world, hence the comment “import if required.”

Armed with this encouragement and data, I went back to the experts and their response changed from impossible to plausible to a major oversight. Dr S Mukundan, of Bengaluru tried out different preparations for raw jackfruit’s low glycaemic index. “I tried it on my father-in-law who is struggling to bring down his sugar levels. We initially tried raw jackfruit meal with millets and saw good progress. On the third day he had a hypoglycemic incident with raw jackfruit meal and brown rice.

This was indeed a major oversight that we never considered the diabetic benefits of an abundantly available local fruit while we are studying the benefits of imported products like Quinoa. Really need further research to standardise combinations soon on raw jackfruit with millets and or brown rice.”

One thing is very clear there is no scientific data to ban the use of raw jackfruit for diabetic patients. If researchers, doctors and nutritionists can join hands to investigate the impact of raw jackfruit for diabetes, chefs can come up with whole meal options with raw jackfruit. Farmer groups will be able to supply jackfruit. We may very well have a Rs 2,000 crore “shock absorber” inside the sticky spiky humble jackfruit for the two major crises India is facing today.

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