Everything you need to know about chicory root and its BFF inulin.

By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN and Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN
February 04, 2020
Credit: 13-Smile/Getty

Take a walk down the cereal aisle at the supermarket and odds are you'll come across chicory root as an ingredient on products boasting high fiber counts or prebiotic benefits. But what is it, exactly, and is it good for you? Here's what you need to know.

First off, what is chicory root?

Native to Northern Africa, Western Asia, and Europe, chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a member of the dandelion family and has been cultivated for centuries for its edible leaves and roots. It's very closely related to the endive and its leaves, which look a lot like dandelion leaves, have a similar bitter flavor and can be eaten raw or cooked (as you would other bitter leafy greens). The roots, on the other hand, are typically processed into a powder that's used to add texture, fiber, and sweetness to foods (such as cereal, protein/granola bars, or basically anything processed labeled as "high-fiber"). Because of its subtle sweet taste and low-calorie nature, it's also often used as a sugar alternative or sweetener in, say, "healthy" ice creams and baked goods as well.

Chicory root can also be ground, roasted, and brewed into a beverage akin to coffee, sometimes called "New Orleans-style" coffee. It doesn't actually contain caffeine but has been used as a "coffee extender" or a substitute for times when coffee was scarce. Today, however, it's more often used as an alternative to coffee for people who want a similar taste and don't want to drink decaf. Sound up your alley? You can easily DIY as you would with regular ole' coffee grinds but with ground chicory root (which you can buy in a tub or bag similar to coffee) either solo or mixed with your usual ground beans. (Related: 11 Coffee Stats You Never Knew

What are the benefits of chicory root?

As mentioned, chicory is high in fiber, which (at its most basic) helps food pass through your system, slowing digestion and the absorption of food. The results? A steady stream of energy and a feeling of satiety, which can prevent you from overeating and, in turn, aid with weight management. (See: These Benefits of Fiber Make It the Most Important Nutrient In Your Diet)

One raw chicory root (about 60g) has about 1g of fiber, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). When roasted and ground into a powder, however, it offers a concentrated source of soluble fiber that's easy to add to other things. Soluble fiber gets its name from the fact that it's soluble in water and forms a gel-like substance when it comes into contact with water and other fluids. That's what makes this type of fiber filling—it takes up physical space in your stomach in addition to helping form stool as it moves through the GI tract. This can help alleviate constipation and help support regular digestion. (Not to mention, fiber might also reduce your risk of breast cancer.)

Inulin is a type of prebiotic fiber that makes up 68 percent of chicory root, according to research published in The Scientific World Journal. That's why, when chicory root is used as an additive, it's can also be referred to as inulin. Manufacturers extract this fiber from the plant to help bump up the fiber content or sweeten food products and supplements. Inulin is also available for purchase as a supplement or a powder that you can sprinkle into, say, baked goodies or smoothies.

Because inulin is a prebiotic fiber, it can have some digestive perks, says Keri Gans, R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet and Shape Advisory Board member. "Prebiotics are food for probiotics, which are the healthy bacteria found in our gut. Research has found a positive relationship between probiotics and our overall digestive health." By providing fuel for the beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut, inulin helps nurture a healthy microbiome. (Related: 7 Ways to Bolster Good Gut Bacteria, Besides Eating Yogurt)

Research in humans and animals also suggests that inulin may be helpful for promoting stable blood sugar levels and improving insulin resistance, especially in people with diabetes. This may be due to the fact that inulin helps nourish the growth of healthy gut bacteria, which play a role in how the body processes carbohydrates, a key factor in diabetes. The state of your gut also has an impact on many other areas of your health (like your happiness and overall mental health.)

Are there any other downsides to chicory root?

While it can technically promote a happy stomach (remember: it's a prebiotic fiber), inulin can do the opposite as well and wreak havoc on the gut, especially in those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gut troubles, and/or FODMAP sensitivity. Inulin is a type of fiber known as a fructan, a short-chain carbohydrate or a FODMAP that's particularly difficult for your body to digest. Depending on your tolerance, inulin (and chicory root, since it contains inulin) can lead to increased gassiness, bloating, pain, and diarrhea. If you know you don't tolerate FODMAPs very well or have a sensitive stomach, be sure to check labels for inulin and chicory root and steer clear of products containing them. (Can't quit cutting the cheese? Hey, it happens. Here's what your farts are saying about your health.)

Also, because chicory root is high in fiber, you need to gradually introduce it into your routine. When you step up your fiber intake too quickly, you may experience gas, bloating, or abdominal pain. Start with a small amount of chicory root and increase over the course of a few days or weeks, depending on how you feel. Drinking extra water and staying hydrated all day long will also help keep things moving through the GI tract and prevent potential discomfort.

Another negative: Research suggests chicory may trigger similar allergic reactions in those who are allergic to ragweed or birch pollen. Sound familiar? Then please avoid chicory root and inulin.

Finally, although it might seem obvious, it's still important to note: If you use chicory as a substitute for regular coffee, don't be surprised if you experience caffeine withdrawal, at least at the beginning. (Psst...here's how one woman gave up caffeine and became a morning person.)

So, is it a good idea to consume chicory root?

Short answer: It depends. Eating chicory root and other inulin-rich foods can help you meet your fiber needs. But (!) that's not a green light to stock up on a lifetime supply of the stuff.

Inulin is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning it's safe to eat, but context matters. Junk food that's been pumped full of added fiber doesn't automatically become healthy. When it comes to inulin-containing products like protein bars, think about why inulin has been added and what purpose it may be serving for you. If it's packed with sugar, unhealthy trans fats, or lots of other additives or ingredients you can't pronounce, take a step back. You shouldn't need to have a master's degree in food science to understand what's in your protein bar.

"I think that there's a place for inulin in packaged products, but by no means should it be considered harmful because it does have some positive properties," says Michal Hertz, M.A., R.D., C.D.N. "However, I would argue that adding fresh fruits and vegetables as a means of getting fiber into your diet would be more beneficial."

That said, there may be times when consuming chicory root is a smart way to amp up your fiber intake or score essential prebiotics. For example, when you're traveling, you might have limited access to fresh produce or are just out of your routine—both of which can throw off your digestion. In that case, a supplement like Now Foods' Probiotic Defense Veg Capsules (Buy It, $16, amazon.com) with added chicory root fiber can help you meet the daily recommended intake of 25-35g of fiber per day and keep your system a-go. (Before you do, read: Is It Possible to Have Too Much Fiber In Your Diet?)

It might also be a good idea to keep chicory root powder as a go-to for alleviating constipation. Simply add 1/2-1 teaspoon to your morning smoothie as a natural way to get relief.

As a good rule of thumb, "fiber from inulin or chicory root should not exceed 10 grams per day, as too much of one singular fiber can alter the gut balance and create discomfort," says Hertz, who emphasizes that fiber from whole foods is still better than that from more processed products.

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May 14, 2020
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