Flour derived from the Detarium senegalense Gmelin plant has been used as a thickener in soups and stews in rural West Africa for centuries, where rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer are among the lowest in the world.
However it was only when a Nigerian researcher, Uchenna Onyechi, brought several of her country's native plants into the life and health sciences laboratories at King's College, University of London, that detarium's remarkable properties were discovered.
One of Dr Onyechi's reasons for studying detarium was to identify substances produced in her own country which could tackle the dramatic rise in diabetes among Nigerian city dwellers who have adopted a more "Western" lifestyle.
Scientists at King's recently carried out the first studies of the effects of detarium on humans, which revealed that when the plant flour is taken as part of a meal, it reduces the surge in blood sugar usually experienced after eating.
This is because the plant contains a high amount of water soluble fibre, which slows down the absorption of glucose from the digestive system into the blood.
Dr Peter Ellis, who is leading the research group, said the "startling" results show detarium has "great potential in the treatment of diabetes and heart disease and could help to prevent these and other diseases including colon cancer".
It could also stave off illnesses such as kidney failure, heart disease and blindness, which are closely associated with long-term diabetes.
People with diabetes experience high or fluctuating levels of blood sugar, because the insulin needed for the sugar's absorption into body tissues is lacking or inhibited from working.
Unlike many of today's diabetic drugs, which have specific functions such as boosting insulin production - itself shown to be a risk factor in heart disease - or reducing plasma cholesterol, detarium has the potential to tackle the illness on several levels. Not only does it slow insulin production and sugar absorption, it also improves the absorption of nutrients and fats, thereby lowering blood cholesterol. In addition, it could be invaluable for patients susceptible to the illness because of the link between surges in blood sugar, that put stress on the pancreas to produce insulin, and the development of diabetes.
The King's scientists are looking at several plants which have similar properties, but so far detarium has been shown to be the most effective.
"The implications of moderating surges in blood sugar and reducing insulin and cholesterol levels in the blood with a natural dietary product that has no side-effects are very promising," said Dr Ellis.
Detarium is extremely palatable and large quantities can be mixed with food without spoiling the taste. However strict guidelines on the claims made on food labelling mean it could take several years of clinical trials before foods containing detarium are readily available.
Around 1.4 million people in the UK have been diagnosed as having diabetes. Another million probably have the disease but have not been diagnosed. About one in 10 suffer from the insulin-dependent form of the disease which can only be treated with regular injections of insulin. Most diabetics are treated with a combination of drugs and a low-fat, high-fibre diet.
The incidence of diabetes is rising sharply in developing countries, where more than half of the 220 million people forecast to get the illness by 2010 will live.Reuse content