Go into your favourite health food market. Pick up the closest boxed foot, or cereal bar or anything that has a fibre or gluten free claim. Browse through the ingredients list. Note what’s in it. Pick up another brand, a different flavour, something else (but still somewhat similar in terms of claims), and do the same. You may note that, even though the products may be completely different, most of the ingredients may be different. If you were paying close attention and noting the ingredients, you may have seen an ingredient that keeps popping up: Chicory Root (or inulin). Seeing it come up so often, you may think that it is like any other food additive, a sweetener like glucose or fructose, or a colourant, or another miscellaneous binder or preservatives. The truth is that Chicory Root Inulin is so much more than that and has so much to offer! It is incorporated into more and more food for good reason; not only is it an excellent substitute for several ingredients in processed food, but it has its own intrinsic health benefits.
Background on Chicory Root Inulin
What is Chicory Root inulin? Chicory is a blue-flowered herb that grows across North America and Europe and has been used in many forms of cuisine for a number of years. Its roots have common usage as a coffee substitute or additive (it is caffeine free), having a similar taste (which is why it is also roasted and used in stouts), and the plant leaves are sometimes seen as part of salad greens. Chicory’s use has increased recently because it has been found to be very high in inulin.
Inulin is the name given to a group of oligo- and polysaccharides (mid to long chains of sugars). No two sources of inulin are exactly the same; inulin from an onion is going to be different than the inulin found in chicory or garlic. This is due to the variation in the length of the sugar chains, which grant it a number of adaptable characteristics that can be used in a wide variety of different food products. (1)
- It can act as a flavour enhancer as it can have an underlying sweet taste.
- It can be used to replace fat, sugar, and flour because it binds and thickens, and contains less calories.
Other than use in the manufacturing of foods, it has been attributed to a number of health benefits. While being an excellent source of fibre, inulin has shown the ability to increase the absorption of certain micronutrients like calcium and magnesium, both of which are attributed to inulin’s prebiotic nature. (2)
Prebiotics vs Probiotics
When discussing inulin, it is important to understand the difference between probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics get a ton of coverage in the media; watch television for an hour and you are bound to see the latest yogurt formula which offers probiotic cultures. A probiotic is a culture of microorganisms, that when consumed, provides certain health benefits. A prebiotic on the other hand sets up the environment, so that probiotics can flourish. They are specialized plant fibres that contain nutrients that promote the growth of the good bacteria, improving the ratio of good to bad bacteria. Prebiotics offer additional benefits over probiotics because of how stable they are. Whereas probiotics are sensitive to the foods you ingest, heat, stomach acids and cultures can die out over time (so they are ‘used up in the stomach and large intestine), prebiotics are stable in the gut and are not broken down by stomach acids or heat (meaning they are able to reach the large intestine). Below is a summary of the differences between probiotics and prebiotics.
|Live microorganisms.||Non-living, non-digestible.|
|Bacteria or Yeast cultures.||Fibre from plant sources.|
|Die due to heat sensitivity, acidity, time.||Stable in heat, acid, time.|
|Seen in the stomach and small intestine.||Seen in the stomach, small intestine and large intestine.|
|Fight bad microorganisms.||Food/fertilizer for good microorganisms.|
Both act on the gut to clear and rid your body of harmful, inflammation-inducing organisms usually brought on by poor diet – eat too much fat or sugar and you are creating an environment for microorganisms that process fats and sugars. These microorganisms create gas and chemical intermediates that our body either cannot process without creating inflammatory enzymes, or prevents the absorption of certain nutrients. Prebiotics can remove these microorganisms by creating environments that they don’t like, while creating environments that good microorganisms can thrive in.
Inulin acts as a soluble fibre, a prebiotic. Soluble fibre dissolves in water and is fermented in the gut. This fermentation process, changing the gasses and the physiologically active by-products of the nutrients that pass through, is what makes it a prebiotic. This can result in an array of improvements such as delaying onset of or preventing the development of diabetes mellitus, or by improving bowel movements. (3)
Why Chicory Root Inulin?
As I mentioned, not all inulin is the same. Chicory Root inulin is an ideal food additive when compared to inulin from other sources because is a relatively long chain. This longer chain allows it to substitute for the long chains of hydrocarbons that make up fats. It is very attractive because it acts as a “stealth fibre;” having a smooth texture unlike the dry, flakey texture usually associated with most other fibre sources. As well, Chicory Root inulin is relatively easy to extract. It is extracted, naturally, by a process that is very similar to how sugar beet is processed, thus keeping production costs relatively cheap while maintaining nutritional consistency of the inulin.
Beyond Fibre – Chicory Root Benefits?
Chicory Root being put into a lot of products may be because of a marketing group wanting to get a fibre claim on their product, but let’s not discount the other potential health benefits Chicory Root has to offer.
Chicory Root is a source of volatile oils (also known as essential oils) that are excellent for ridding one’s self of intestinal parasites. More often it is used for foraging farm animals, which are more likely to get infected with parasites. Chicory still sees use in a number of countries where food is not grown or served under a firm regulatory framework. (4) Even in our own society, where we believe our food is relatively “safe” because of strict regulatory framework, we are susceptible to come into contact with parasites or develop and breed harmful organisms within our guts. On top of the prebiotic effects mentioned previously, the volatile oils help to get rid of a lot of these harmful organisms that thrive in high sugar, high fat environments, as shown in a number of animal studies (human studies are lacking). (5, 6)
Chicory Root extract has been shown to prevent cholesterol and lipid (fat) absorption through stimulating the flow of bile. Animal studies have shown that when fed chicory root extract, animals would excrete more lipid and cholesterol in their stools. (7) Bile emulsifies lipids, coating them and breaking them into smaller droplets to make them easier to absorb and digest. Chicory seems to speed this process up and alter the production of cholesterol, and the cleansing ability of the liver, thus making it excellent for liver detox.
Chicory Root is an excellent source of antioxidant polyphenols. Polyphenols are large molecules that possess the ability to rapidly cross cellular membranes and interact with the activities of the inside of a cell. The large rings have areas that can bind oxidative stress elements (free radicals) that are harmful to us, giving it antioxidant capabilities. As well, these rings have estrogenic effects, which can further alter lipid metabolism. While confirmed human trials are still underway, several animal studies have shown that Chicory Root extract lowered inflammatory markers as well as lowered serum lipid levels. (8)
Too Good To Be True?
Chicory Root seems to be the perfect food additive doesn’t it? An excellent source of fibre without the usually associated dryness, improves gut health, prevents fat absorption, and it is considered a fructan, a polymer chain of fructose sugars, making it relatively safe for diabetics because of our limited ability to digest them (thus having little to no impact on our blood sugar). However, because it is a fructan, it faces the dilemma of being classified as a FODMAP.
FODMAP is a fancy acronym used to describe short chain carbohydrates and alcohols that are poorly absorbed by the intestines. It stands for Fermentable Oligo- Di-Mono-saccharides And Polyols and foods that fall into the FODMAP classification are increasingly being warned about if you suffer from irritable or sensitive bowel syndromes, and related gastrointestinal disorders. In fact, most people who attribute their irritable bowel symptoms to things like gluten, fructose, and lactose are actually more likely suffering from FODMAP malabsorption. In my previous gluten article I mention some of the dilemmas facing FODMAPs and Gluten, and as we learn more about FODMAPs, the more it seems like gastrointestinal problems are due to them more than anything else in our diets.
This creates a huge dilemma for people who believe that choosing foods containing chicory root will be beneficial for their gut (given the intestinal and digestive benefits listed above). They may think that they are getting something that is supposed to be good for their gut and healthy for them overall, but they could be getting something that prolongs or exacerbates their gut problems. Consumption of FODMAP foods for people who are particularly sensitive can cause increased gases or bloating outside of that experienced from normal fibre consumption. (9)
The best way to determine if you are sensitive to FODMAP foods, is to cut high-FODMAP foods out of your diet and focus on the low-FODMAP foods (a list of both can be found here). While FODMAP diets can be costly and difficult to follow, as is similar to other defined diets, it can be a welcome relief from the constant pain and discomfort for those suffering from bowel disorders. Evidence supporting the use of Low FODMAP diets is growing and shows improvements in all symptoms of irritable bowel diseases. (10, 11)
There is no doubt that the use of Chicory Root in foods is widely becoming a norm. There is good, scientific evidence to suggest that Chicory Root can be very good for you. (12) The inulin that it provides is an excellent source of fibre, and is usable as a natural alternative additive in a number of food products. Chicory has its roots grounded in traditional medicine for all manner of stomach ailments and is now being understood that it very well could be useful to treat certain digestive issues and deal with the stressors of a westernized diet. That said, we also need to keep in mind that it can be equally as detrimental to people who suffer from irritable bowel syndromes or are sensitive to FODMAP foods. There is lots of work being done right now to tease out the details of Chicory Root’s effect on health and well-being.
If you think you have sensitivity to FODMAPs, it might be best to stay away from Chicory Root and sourced inulin (I’m now starting to see some packaging at least warning about the inulin content for those of us who are FODMAP sensitive). But if you have never had an issue with your gut, Chicory Root and sourced inulin provides great dietary benefit.