Next time you visit your favorite health food store, pick up a packaged food that says "high-fiber." Flip it over, read the ingredients, and you’ll probably see inulin listed. Among its benefits, this soluble fiber—typically derived from chicory root—does double duty as a prebiotic and a sweetener, making it a go-to ingredient among manufacturers to enhance taste, increase fiber content, and make healthy foods appear healthier.
Inulin 101: What is it and why is it healthy?
Chicory root is a blue-flowered herb that grows throughout North America and Europe. Its roots make a great caffeine-free coffee substitute, and you can mix its plant leaves directly into your salad. But chicory’s big claim to fame comes from inulin, which is a prebiotic fiber sometimes listed as polysaccharides and fructooligosaccharides (FOS). These are just fancy names for inulin's sugar chains. And while technically a type of sugar, inulin behaves differently than table sugar because you can’t digest it, so it has little to no impact on your blood sugar.
Instead, inulin beelines to your large intestine and works as a prebiotic that feeds your good gut bacteria. Probiotics get a lot of glory, but without prebiotics like inulin, these friendly gut flora couldn’t flourish.
Seven reasons to eat more inulin-rich foods.
Inulin is one of those rare ingredients that also naturally occurs in certain foods and actually lives up to its health hype. Among its benefits, getting more inulin can:
1. Help you lose weight.
Studies show inulin can benefit people with pre-diabetes by promoting weight loss and improving lipid levels.
2. Improve nutrient absorption.
Besides making a great fiber source, inulin can increase absorption of nutrients like calcium and magnesium.
3. Reduce constipation.
Most of us know how miserable constipation can be. One study among elderly folks found 15 grams of inulin supplementation improved constipation and quality of life. (More on this in a minute, but don’t try 15 grams at once!)
4. Provide essential oils.
Volatile or essential oils in chicory root help get rid of intestinal parasites. Animal studies show chicory’s volatile oils help get rid of harmful organisms that thrive in high-sugar, high-fat environments.
5. Improve bile flow to optimize cholesterol and fat.
Studies show animals fed chicory root extract excrete more fats and cholesterol.
6. Boost liver health.
Chicory helps you detoxify more efficiently, and studies show it can reduce liver-related oxidative stress.
7. Lower inflammation.
Chicory root provides antioxidant polyphenols that animal studies show can lower inflammatory markers.
How to get more inulin in your life.
If you’re curious about introducing more inulin into your diet, you have a few options. I prefer whole foods over supplements, and raw chicory root is a great option: About 65 percent of its total weight is inulin. Other good food sources of inulin include raw Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, raw onions, and raw garlic. You might also opt for a supplement, available at most health food stores as a powder. Inulin has a mildly sweet taste that mixes well in cold beverages.
Start slow and pay attention to bloating.
Easy does it, though: You can easily overconsume inulin, especially as a powder, because it has a smooth rather than gritty taste like most fiber supplements do. Overdoing it can create gas, bloating, and other miseries that definitely won’t make you a hit at your next dinner party. However you prefer to get inulin, start out slowly and gradually increase intake to tolerance. Studies show most healthy people can tolerate up to 10 grams of inulin daily.
Also worth noting: If you’re on a low-FODMAP diet, you should avoid inulin-containing foods, which can increase gas or bloating. But for most people, they’re very healthy.