Chicory, or cichorium intybus, is an herb that grows wild throughout Europe, the United States, and Australia but is also cultivated for culinary use. It’s related to endive and radicchio, two slightly bitter, lettuce-like vegetables often used in salads, as a base for an appetizer, or as a garnish. Once deployed as coffee extender during hard economic times and still popular as such in New Orleans (its neutral taste and similar color and texture make it a perfect filler), chicory root has quite a different purpose in modern-day food science.
Chicory root is made up of 40 percent inulin, which is an oligosaccharide (a fancy name for carbohydrate fiber). Inulin is found naturally in many foods we commonly eat — including bananas, onions, and wheat — but chicory’s high inulin concentration make it a favorite for food manufacturers to bulk up the fiber in packaged foods. Have you ever wondered how brownies, cookies, or chocolate-chip granola bars can have more fiber than a cup of vegetables? That, friends, is some chicory root–related food-science magic. Because of the known health benefits of fiber, many food manufacturers started to add chicory root or inulin to packaged foods in order to boost the fiber content — and the perceived health benefits of their products.
Fiber, found naturally in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, is a powerful nutrient. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble, and both play important roles in promoting health. Soluble fiber (the primary type in chicory root) slows digestion, helps eliminate cholesterol from our bodies, and may help regulate blood sugar levels. Insoluble fiber is not digestible, but it promotes regular bowel movements and may even play a role in weight control by helping us to feel full longer. Most high-fiber foods contribute some of both types, and diets high in fiber are linked to lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
The inulin in chicory root fiber is also a prebiotic, or a fiber that feeds and promotes the growth of healthy probiotic bacteria in our guts. Prebiotic fibers are also found in fruits and vegetables such as asparagus, legumes, soybeans, and wheat. Consuming foods with natural prebiotics like inulin promotes good gut health, and some studies suggest prebiotic additives like inulin from chicory root fiber may improve digestion.
So why not load up on chicory root? While some research suggests that chicory root fiber may help to regulate digestion, blood sugars, and cholesterol, adding it to processed foods is not likely as beneficial as getting your fiber from whole fruits and vegetables. Also, as with most things in life, you can have too much of a good thing. Many people who consume foods with added fibers such as inulin complain of gas, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea or constipation.
Sorry to rain on your parade, but just because a packaged food has added fiber, it does not mean that the processed food is healthier. Ice cream is still ice cream even with “good” filler, so you’re better off obtaining fiber and other nutrients from their natural sources — plants.
At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to [email protected]