If you’ve looked outside your window while traveling along the highway, you’ve probably seen the pretty, blue, daisy-like chicory flower, a perennial herb that grows in many areas of the country. Inulin is the energy storage in those roots, that make the plant grow the next year. While acting as energy for the plant, it acts as dietary fiber for humans. Chicory root also may be familiar as the roasted, ground coffee substitute that is popular in New Orleans. Thousands of years ago, according to paleontologists, our ancestors consumed as much as 135 grams of inulin per day. Also, today, inulin is part of our daily diet, but to a much lower extent. You can find it in fruits and vegetables like bananas, onions, yacón, artichoke, garlic, and more.
Where Can I Find Chicory Root?
Chicory root is rich in a unique, 100% natural vegetable fiber called inulin. Plants like chicory store extra energy in their roots in the form of inulin and other carbohydrates. The inulin in the chicory root can be extracted and isolated for use as a dietary fiber ingredient. During autumn, the amount of shorter chain inulin (also called oligofructose or FOS) in the root increases. This process is copied from nature to produce oligofructose/FOS from inulin.
Food companies use both inulin and oligofructose to boost the fiber content of foods while also cutting down on added sugars and fats. Foods with added chicory root will include the wording chicory root, chicory root fibers, inulin, and/or oligofructose in the ingredient list. The chicory plant is non-GMO.
What are the Benefits of Chicory Root?
Our digestive tract doesn’t have the enzymes needed to digest inulin so it passes intact through our gastrointestinal tract and into the large intestine. There, it serves as nourishment for our microbiota, or living organisms in our gut that include both “good” and “bad” bacteria. Inulin, in particular, is very effective in supporting the beneficial bacteria of our microbiota, as chicory root fiber is their preferred nutrient. Inulin and oligofructose are among the few fibers in our diet that can serve as prebiotics. Prebiotics are foods or ingredients that boost the growth of the microbiota. Thus, while our body can’t break down chicory root fibers, our microbiota can.
The short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), created during this fermentation process in our large intestine help regulate our metabolism and our hunger/satiety mechanism. The combination of SCFAs, good bacteria, and extra fiber may benefit us in numerous other ways:
- Help lower fat, sugar, and calories in foods
- Contribute to fullness
- Support absorption of the mineral calcium
- Lower blood glucose response after eating (when chicory root fibers are used in place of sugar and/or other carbohydrates)
- Maintain regularity
How Can Chicory Root Fiber Help Me?
Men and women in the U.S. generally don’t have enough fiber in their diets. Men usually get about 20 grams per day compared to the recommended 38 grams, while women average 16 grams per day, well short of the 25 grams they should be eating. One of the most telling consequences of a low fiber intake is a lazy and slow-moving gut. This can result in a low number of bowel movements per week, hard stools, and constipation. On the other hand, doubling one’s fiber intake means more activity in the gut, which results in softer and more frequent stools, but may also mean an increase in intestinal gas. If problems with gas are a concern, a few days of slowly increasing the fiber in the daily diet should help each person find their correct balance with minimal discomfort.
The chicory root is an excellent source of fiber. For a slight increase in the number of stools per week and a slightly softer stool consistency, 8-12g/d (intake in several servings spread over the day) of chicory root fiber is sufficient. Most people can tolerate 15-20g/d of chicory root fiber spread over several servings per day, an amount that could push them closer to their daily fiber goals overall. To achieve the prebiotic effect, human studies show consuming as little as 5g/d of chicory root fiber is enough to increase the microbiota. In addition, the full benefit portfolio of prebiotic fermentation may also include a desire to eat less, naturally, and a number of other favorable effects on digestive health. Chicory root fibers may be added to a large variety of every day food items like yogurts, cereal bars, bakery products, breakfast cereals and grains and other fiber-enriched products. Check the nutritional label of the grocery store products that you purchase.