Last year on a placid Easter evening, Fr. Brahmanavelil, a parish priest from our village, came home and dropped a bombshell. A month ago, he had collapsed in his bedroom right after taking his normal insulin dose. He managed to survive by reaching for the sugar on his bedside table. An hour earlier, he had eaten the traditional unripe jackfruit meal (prepared with the meaty flesh around the seed just before it turns ripe). Like raw mango, unripe jackfruit is neither sweet nor does it have the aroma of the ripe version. This hypoglycaemic incident was repeated in two weeks, again when he had jackfruit meal for dinner. This got me worried, as I am running a campaign to replace potato and meat with unripe jackfruit. For the last year I have been flying around the country with a red bag full of dried unripe jackfruit, meeting scientists, diabetologists, cardiologists, nutritionists, Ayurveda doctors, testing labs and even Dr. Abdul Kalam.
According to Ayurveda doctors, unripe jackfruit meal is a 3000-year-old tradition in Kerala, known as chakka puzhukku . It was the main carbohydrate replacement during summer months till the Portuguese brought the cassava plant from Brazil. Over the last few hundred years most Malayalis have ditched this native sticky, spiky but tasty and fibrous hippopotamus growing 30 ft above ground for the tapioca meal. They use the exact jackfruit meal recipe with the starchy root of cassava plant growing three inches below the ground. And in these few hundred years Kerala has become the diabetic capital of India and spends Rs.600 crores fighting the disease, and another Rs.600 crores of these little hippos drop down from its trees every year. The Portuguese, in return, popularised the name of our humble chakka to jaca , and it is now known as jackfruit around the world.
Meanwhile, my search continued and the first breakthrough came from Dr. Vivek Garg, who sent a report published by U.P.K. Hettiaratchi, S. Ekanayake and J. Welihinda in Ceylon Medical Journal . Sri Lanka is the only other place on earth where unripe jackfruit meal is also used as a carbohydrate replacement. The study clearly showed a sharp decline in sugar level 30 minutes after meal consumption. The reasons cited are low sugar level in raw jackfruit combined with high dietary fibre. I got the nutritional values of unripe jackfruit tested and verified; it only has 1/5th the sugar of the ripe version and 60 per cent of its dietary fibre is insoluble. Armed with this data, I went back to the experts and the language of their responses changed from impossible to plausible to provocative!
An Ayurveda doctor and a leading diabetologist tried unripe jackfruit meal for dinner on their patients and got overnight reduction in sugar levels and, in some cases, significant reduction in insulin as well. Fr. Brahmanavelil is the happiest of all. Instead of one cup of rice meal for dinner and insulin, he now takes three cups of unripe jackfruit meal and skips his insulin.
As cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon Dr. Sriram Nene told me, “Diabetes is on the order of an epidemic in India and the cure may lie in the humble jackfruit, which grows abundantly. While the Ceylon Medical Journal study has small numbers, its results are fairly provocative and should definitely stimulate added investigation in the use of unripe jackfruit as part of diabetic diet.”
I hope the diabetic research community conducts a full-blown study to validate these anecdotal incidents and, by next World Health Day, the children from this diabetic capital of the world start singing “When humble jackfruit went up the chart on diabetic research, insulin and sugar came tumbling down on our diet chart!”
James Joseph is founder of JackFruit365™, an initiative to create an organised market for jackfruits in India.