When it comes to what we eat, fiber is often under-consumed in American diets. This is a problem because it can help safeguard us against a host of ailments, including heart disease and certain cancers, not to mention, it keeps us feeling fuller for longer.
That’s why so many of us try to add more fiber to our meals causing a renewed interest in fiber-rich chicory root. One of the most popular chicory items is chicory coffee. The city of New Orleans has embraced chicory ever since the American Civil War when Union naval blockades cut off coffee imports to the city which forced residents to look for creative ways to make supplies last. This included mixing roasted chicory root into their coffee to stretch the supply, and sometimes just brewing the abundant root on its own which tastes more-or-less similar to java.
Today, with a coffee shop on nearly every corner, there’s certainly enough coffee to go around and no need to ration. But are there still other reasons why you should add this unique type of fiber to your diet? Here’s how you can make chicory in all its forms work for you.
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Chicory is a perennial purple flowering plant that is a member of the dandelion family with both edible leaves and root, the latter being what is used most often for culinary purposes including being roasted and ground for brewing purposes.
Nutritionally, chicory root is known best for being loaded with a special group of fibers known as fructans. In particular, chicory contains exceptionally high levels of a fructan called inulin, a non-digestible soluble fiber. One of the benefits of inulin is that it’s considered a prebiotic, meaning that it can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria (called probiotics) in your gut. This is important, as better gut health is linked to everything from improved immunity, brain functioning, digestive health, and even body composition.
Another beneficial perk of sneaking more inulin into your diet is the potential it has to lower harmful LDL cholesterol levels, making it ticker-friendly. And if you’re prone to being backed up, make note that research shows that increasing the intake of inulin can improve stool frequency. A study in the journal Gut suggests that a change to the makeup of the bacteria in our guts brought on by inulin consumption can help bring on softer stools for those who suffer from bowel movement issues. Constipation is one of the most frequent GI complaints in America, so chicory sourced inulin could be a useful remedy.
Some data suggests that supplementing with inulin can also help improve blood sugar control. However, this is more likely to occur in people with existing blood sugar management conditions, including type 2 diabetes.
While simply tossing inulin into the mix if you don’t eat enough other high-fiber foods, like vegetables and whole grains, might not give you the results you want, many types of fiber function as a prebiotic, not just inulin. So a diet that’s generally high in fiber—abundant in plant foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds—will likely offer the same microbiome benefits as chicory root fiber does. Other natural sources of inulin include Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), asparagus, onions, garlic, and leeks.
Similar to other edible roots, chicory contains a range of essential micronutrients including potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and manganese (a nutrient involved in metabolism, immunity, and bone formation). But you’re unlikely to eat enough of chicory in any given day to obtain significant amounts of these nutrients from it.
Regarding bone-benefiting calcium, research shows that chicory root fiber (about 8 grams a day) improves absorption rates. The fiber in chicory root makes the colon more acidic, which increases the surface area that can absorb nutrients like calcium.
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Yes, you can cook and eat whole chicory root like you would other root vegetables, but it’s availability is rather limited and not something most people roast up like carrots and beets (which is why very few people include the whole bitter-tasting root in their diets). Instead, chicory is typically consumed in drink form or as chicory root fiber added to packaged foods.
Chicory root coffee is made from chicory roots that have been dried, roasted, and ground, making it ready to brew. Brands of herbal “coffee” and teas, such as Teeccino, that are laced with ground chicory root instead of ground coffee beans, can be a rich-tasting alternative to coffee for those looking to abstain from caffeine. Other ingredients in these brews can include carob and barley.
Another option is to use brands that mix chicory with a small amount of coffee to reduce the amount of caffeine you consume if that is your goal. (This kind of coffee-chicory mixture is still popular in New Orleans.) Just keep in mind that chicory root coffee typically doesn’t contain a lot of inulin fiber, since the grounds are strained out of the finished drink. To get the full prebiotic benefit, you’ll need to consume the root itself or isolated chicory root fiber. And because these drinks are caffeine-free or contain very little, don’t expect a steamy drink of chicory coffee to supercharge your runs.
Stand-alone chicory powder—with its woody, slightly nutty taste—can be added to soups, sauces, DIY energy bars, chocolate puddings, smoothies, and hot beverages including coffee, tea, and hot chocolate for a boost of fiber. (You’ll get more fiber if you end up eating the grounds instead of just brewing a drink from them.) Bags of ground chicory can be purchased from some health food stores or online retailers.
Chicory powder is more water-soluble than coffee, which means you need to use a lot less of it when brewing it straight up as a coffee alternative. Use too much, and you’ll end up with a mug full of overpowering astringent flavor.
? How to brew chicory coffee: Begin with 1/2 teaspoon of chicory for every cup of hot water and adjust according to your taste. To brew a chicory coffee blend, use about 2/3 ground coffee and 1/3 chicory.
However, you can use chicory root in food and beverages goes far beyond just a coffee replacement. Fiber extracted from chicory root is added to certain packaged foods including snack bars, ice creams, protein powders, breads, and yogurts to boost fiber intake. Plus, you can buy seeds to grow chicory flowers, which are a nice addition to salads, soups, scrambled eggs, and grain bowls. Inulin tastes sweet, so it’s sometimes used to help reduce some of the sugar or sugar substitutes needed in these foods as well. This typically reduces the number of calories in the food, as well, but just keep in mind that adding inulin fiber to what is a highly processed food doesn’t necessarily make it great dietary choice—it just makes it junk food with more fiber.
The key is to make sure the chicory root fiber is bundled up in a food that has an overall sound nutrition profile. The majority of your fiber should still hail from whole foods with less reliance on what is added to packaged foods. However, if someone is struggling to get adequate amounts of fiber and a manufactured food item containing chicory root can help them reach their needs, it is reasonable to suggest incorporating some of these products as a supplement to other high-quality food sources.
As a soluble fiber, inulin swells in the stomach when consumed. While this can help control hunger and, in turn, may aid in weight loss efforts, this may lead to stomach troubles, including abdominal pain, bloating, and gas in individuals who are not used to eating inulin or much fiber at all.
As such, consuming smaller amounts (no more than 5 grams a day) and gradually building up from there is the best way to develop tolerance and side-step wreaking digestive havoc. So that might mean eating only half on an energy bar that contains high amounts of chicory fiber. Some people just seem to be more sensitive to inulin than others and may need to scale back their consumption. Always be sure to drink plenty of water when consuming chicory fiber, or more fiber overall, to aid with digestion.
Unfortunately, companies aren’t required to specify the amount of inulin in their products on the label; it will be included in the total amount of dietary fiber listed on the nutrition label. But if a food or beverage that doesn’t usually contain much fiber—such as yogurt, protein bars, or flavored water—lists inulin or chicory root fiber as a primary ingredient, then the total amount of dietary fiber listed gives you a good idea of how many grams of inulin it contains.
One glaring time you don’t want to go overboard on fiber from foods like chicory is before lacing up for a run. Wolf down an energy bar with 10 grams of added inulin shortly before working up a sweat, and you could be in for a run beset by digestive misery.
Individuals who are allergic to ragweed or pollen should consider steering clear of chicory since it belongs to the same plant family. And those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be more likely to experience GI side effects from eating a bunch of chicory root fiber at once.
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There’s nothing wrong with sipping chicory coffee with your morning oatmeal or before a run, and there are good health reasons to include inulin from foods like chicory in your daily diet. And if your favorite packaged food happens to contain chicory root fiber, great! You’ll likely reap some prebiotic benefits.
But what is most important for overall health is that you consume enough total fiber each day (at least 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women) from a variety of dietary sources. So if you don’t brew up chicory coffee or spoon up inulin-enhanced cereal, but still eat plenty of fiber-rich whole foods, you are clearly rooting (pun intended) for good digestive health.
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