What Is Chicory Root? The Fiber-Rich Food You're Seeing Everywhere
Additional reporting by Kelsey Hampton, MS, RDN, LD, CSSD
If you've read the ingredient list on your protein bar recently, you may have seen "chicory root," "chicory root fiber," "chicory root extract," "chicory fiber syrup," or "chicory inulin" listed. And that probably landed you here. So, what is this root and why is it suddenly in everything from snack bars to cereals? From usage to sources, benefits and side effects, here is what you need to know about this fiber-rich food.
What is chicory root?
While chicory root has been around for centuries, it's only gained popularity amongst food manufacturers and the public in recent years.
Widely grown in Northwestern Europe, chicory is a leafy plant that we harvest for its roots and leaves.
The roots are popular due to their high soluble fiber content, specifically, inulin. Inulin is a natural soluble dietary fiber: a type of fiber that dissolves in water, slowing down digestion, keeping you fuller longer, balancing blood sugar, and lowering cholesterol. Manufacturers extract inulin from natural sources to use as a functional fiber to increase fiber content of processed foods.
Chicory root is one of the most common sources of inulin; other inulin-rich foods include Jerusalem artichokes, onion, garlic, and leeks.
People also eat chicory leaves, which are similar in shape to dandelion leaves. Besides being processed into an isolated fiber, the roots can also be boiled and consumed on their own.
People often confuse endive, Cichorium endivia, for chicory root. While the two are in the same genus, manufacturers extract the root fiber from the common chicory plant, Cichorium intybus, and not from the endive species.
What is it used for?
One of the first uses of chicory roots appears to be as a coffee alternative during periods of coffee shortage centuries ago. Although chicory itself does not have caffeine, like coffee beans, it does have a very similar flavor. So, for those wanting a coffee fix while staying mindful of caffeine, chicory root coffee may be a good solution. People dry and ground the chicory root to create this coffee substitute.
Today, the usage of chicory root in food and beverage is far beyond just a coffee replacement. Outside of dietary sources, some even use it in highly concentrated forms for medicinal purposes. While some may apply a paste of chicory topically to reduce inflammation, others may consume it for gallbladder and liver disorders, and high blood pressure.
Currently, we need more evidence to determine the true effectiveness of chicory on these conditions. We do, however, have plenty of positive research that connects chicory with improving digestive health.
What are the health benefits of chicory root?
While there has been no shortage of information and coverage surrounding the benefits of fiber, the inulin from chicory root touts its own slew of benefits.
- Improves digestion: Dietary fiber, including that found in chicory, can be beneficial for the digestive system and help maintain regularity and reduce constipation.
- Promotes a healthy gut microbiome: You may have heard of probiotics, those living organisms in your intestine that help promote good digestion, amongst other benefits, but have you heard of prebiotics? Think of prebiotics as the food source that allows probiotics to thrive. Inulin, found in chicory, is a form of prebiotic, and because of this, it may help promote the growth of these beneficial probiotic bacteria.
- Promotes regular bowel movements and reduces risk of colon cancer: One study noted those who consumed an inulin supplement made from chicory root had an increase in stool frequency and softness. This is a significant benefit of chicory root usage as research has documented infrequent bowel movements being associated with increased risk for colon cancer.
- Improves blood sugar regulation: Another benefit of inulin is blood sugar control. In a study conducted with women who had Type 2 diabetes, women who took inulin supplements experienced improved fasting blood sugar and increased antioxidant capacity.
Are there any side effects associated with consuming chicory root?
Although several benefits of chicory root have been documented, it may not be for everyone. Chicory root is on the Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) list overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means it is considered safe for consumption. This refers to the chicory used in manufactured food products, which is how the majority of us may consume this food.
However, individuals should be cautious when considering consuming chicory in higher, medicinal concentrations. Possible side effects—which are common when consuming a high-fiber diet—may include:
- abdominal pain
At this time, there is little research on chicory usage during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so it is advised to use caution and talk with your medical team before using chicory root in these scenarios.
Should you bother eating chicory root or are there better alternatives?
There are many ways to consume inulin, the fibrous component of chicory associated with many of the previously listed benefits. While onion, garlic and leeks contain inulin as well, the concentration of inulin found in a manufactured food item, like a breakfast bar, is likely higher.
All forms of fiber are necessary through our diet and achieving adequate intake of this nutrient from various sources, which can include chicory, is ideal. However, if side effects, like those listed above, start to appear, one should reduce their consumption of chicory root.
Chicory root is often used as a fiber supplement added to processed food and beverage. According to the research available today, it is likely safe for consumption for the general public.
As a dietitian, I always recommend that the majority of your food—and fiber—intake comes from food in its natural state with little reliance on processed items. However, if an individual is struggling to get adequate fiber and a manufactured food item containing chicory root can help them reach their fiber needs, it is reasonable to incorporate these products amongst other high-quality food sources.
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