Common chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a blue flowering plant that grows along roadsides or railroads. Native to Eurasia, it is now common in North America, China, and Australia. Chicory is not only grown as a forage crop for livestock but has been used for centuries in cooking and traditional medicine. For at least 5,000 years, the plant has been cultivated for its leaves, buds and roots.
In foods, chicory leaves are often eaten like celery, and the roots and leaf buds are boiled and eaten. Chicory coffee is a coffee-like beverage made from chicory root. Originated in the 1800s in France during a massive coffee shortage, the roasted roots were brewed as a coffee alternative. Even today, chicory root coffee is mixed with or used as a caffeine-free coffee substitute, especially in New Orleans where it became a signature beverage.
Chicory root has been used for its health benefits going as far back as ancient Egypt. Root extracts have been used as a diuretic and laxative, for liver and heart health, and to treat fevers. Research has shown that chicory root extract can increase the flow of bile and be antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and slightly sedative. It also can help lower blood sugar levels. Chicory roots are a rich source of inulin, a fiber known for its prebiotic properties. Prebiotics serves as food for healthy gut bacteria. These beneficial bacteria are tied to better digestive health, anti-inflammation, immunity, and mood. By supporting a healthy digestive system, inulin also helps to maintain good overall health.
Cichorium intybus is a species of the dandelion family (Asteraceae). This hardy perennial is native to Eurasia but came early to the United States with the settlers as a medicinal herb. It now grows naturally throughout North America and is common along roadsides and in open weedy areas. C. intybus or common chicory has many names such as blue sailors, ragged sailors, coffeeweed, Italian dandelion, succory, and wild endive. The name “chicory” is also sometimes used for another related species, Cichorium endivia or curly endive. These closely related plants are often confounded.
The C. intybus variety sativum is cultivated for its inulin-rich roots. Inulin is a type of fiber known as a fructan or fructooligosaccharides, a carbohydrate similar to starch. It functions as a storage carbohydrate in the plant’s long tap root. The roasted and ground chicory roots are brewed to make a coffee substitute. Inulin from dried chicory root extract is used as a sweetener and source of dietary fiber in food products. Due to its numerous health benefits, chicory inulin is also important as an inulin supplement and prebiotic fiber. Another source of this health-promoting fiber is the tuber of the sunflower species Helianthus tuberosus, better known as Jerusalem artichoke.
What does the plant look like?
Chicory is a branching flowering plant that can grow to 180 cm tall. It resembles dandelion in its deep taproot and rosette of toothed basal leaves. But unlike dandelion, it puts up a tangle of stiff and hairy branching stalks. Small, clasping leaves are alternately spaced on the stem. The chicory plant flowers from July until October. Its flowers are light blue, rarely pink or white. The ray flowers grow in clusters of two or three and only bloom for a day.
Where the name comes from?
It is thought that the genus name Cichorium is the Latinized version of an old Arabic name for “chicory”. The Greek version of it is kichore. The species name intybus might be derived from intubus, the Latin name for “wild chicory”. This may come from the Egyptian word tybi, meaning “January”. January was the month the Egyptians would harvest the plant for food.
Use of chicory root inulin
- Dietary fiber
- Sugar or fat replacement in functional foods
Use of chicory root
- Caffeine-free chicory coffee
- Source of various vitamins and minerals such as beta-carotene, vitamin B6, vitamin C, manganese, and selenium
- Mild laxative effect
- Stimulates production of bile from the gallbladder
- Topical use for swelling, inflammation, and osteoarthritis
- Contains inulin and oligofructose
Inulin and oligofructose are inulin-type fructans extracted from chicory. Both plant-based carbohydrates are prebiotic dietary fibers. This means that inulin and oligofructose, a subgroup of inulin, are not digested by human digestive enzymes. Instead, they travel intact onto the large intestine. In the colon, they are fermented by the intestinal microflora. This fermentation produces large amounts of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are absorbed in the colon and used as fuel for colonic epithelial cells. They may be the effector of the beneficial role of fiber in the prevention of colon cancer.
Further, this fermentation accelerates the growth of bifidobacteria. Bifidobacterium is a beneficial bacterium in the human colon. It belongs to a group of bacteria called probiotics. In short, prebiotics is like food for probiotics. At the same time, the growth of potentially harmful bacteria is hampered. The composition of the gut microflora is altered towards the good bacteria and optimal gut health. Both inulin and oligofructose have been demonstrated to be effective prebiotics.
In the United States, inulin has attained Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status by the FDA. Still, hypersensitivity has been known to occur. Also, higher doses may cause mild gastrointestinal side effects including gas, bloating, and cramps.
Chicory may cause an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to the dandelion family. This includes ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies, and many others. If you have allergies, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before taking chicory. In the case of diabetes, consult a healthcare practitioner prior to using products providing 5 g inulin per dose or more. Therefore, it is always advisable to tell your doctor about all medications you use, including supplements and herbs.
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Chicory root was used for centuries for its health benefits. Chicory root fiber contains inulin, a water-soluble but non-digestible fiber. Passing through the large intestine undigested, it is a nutrient for the good bacteria in the gut. It acts as a prebiotic and can support healthy digestion. Prebiotics stimulate the growth of healthy gut bacteria such as bifidobacteria. Bifidobacteria and other friendly gut bacteria play a role in reducing inflammation, fighting harmful bacteria, and improving calcium absorption. Therefore, the prebiotic inulin not only supports and maintains gut health but has many more health benefits.
Research showed that chicory root can also help relieve constipation, a quite common health issue. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial a daily dose of 12 grams of chicory inulin was effective in healthy volunteers with chronic constipation. It significantly improved their bowel function.
Moreover, chicory root might help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels and thus may improve diabetes control. A placebo-controlled study in 49 women with type 2 diabetes showed some positive effects. 10 grams of high-performance inulin per day led to a significant decrease in blood sugar and hemoglobin A1c levels. The latter is a measurement of the average blood sugar.
Some studies indicate that chicory root fiber might also regulate appetite and decrease overall calorie intake. This could possibly lead to weight loss. One clinical trial also found that oligofructose, a subgroup of inulin, helped to lower the level of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin. Thus, chicory root fiber is also gaining popularity as a source of soluble dietary fiber and functional food.
In addition to being fiber-rich, chicory root contains several types of antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins.
Medicinal Properties of Chicory Root
- Contains prebiotic dietary fibers
Chicory root fiber may help control blood sugar, especially in patients with diabetes. This might be partial linked to beneficial bacteria as they are involved in carbohydrate metabolism. Also, it provides support in relieving constipation and increases stool volume due to the bulking effect.
Chicory root has been used for centuries for culinary and medicinal purposes and is considered generally safe for most people. It is gluten-free, and its prebiotic fibers have a lot of health benefits. Chicory root fibers not only improve digestive health but also increase daily fiber intake. This can boost regularity and may help decrease overall calorie intake. Moreover, research studies have shown positive effects of chicory root extract on blood sugar as well as possible anti-inflammatory qualities.