Chicory: a prebiotic’s secret life unearthed
In the nutrition world, prebiotics are the new black.
I’m reading about them everywhere, and seeing them added to more and more foods in the supermarket each time I go.
Even if you haven’t heard of them, it’s likely that you’ve eaten them. Prebiotics are simply a specific type of soluble fiber that people cannot digest, but the friendly bacteria in our guts can. In other words, prebiotics are food for “probiotics,” or the health-promoting bacteria that live in our intestines and help protect us from diarrhea-causing pathogenic bacteria. As probiotic bacteria grow and thrive while they feast on prebiotics, they throw off all sorts of beneficial digestive by-products called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Lots of research into the health benefits of these SCFAs is emerging, and they are being credited with outcomes ranging from regularity to colon cancer prevention to inducing remissions in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases like Ulcerative Colitis. It’s exciting stuff, to be sure, but don’t let your zeal for digestive nirvana send you into a prebiotic feeding frenzy just yet. After all, things that your gut bacteria digest for you produce gas as a by-product. Go slow and you shall reap the rewards without suffering a flatulent fate.
There are many types of fiber that act as prebiotics, but the most common one you’re likely to come across is called inulin. While there’s a modest amount of it in onions and asparagus, the two biggest food sources of inulin are Jerusalem artichokes and Chicory root. Since we’ve discussed the former already at length in a previous post, we can turn our attention to the latter and ask the obvious question: what on earth is chicory?
The answer is a little-known bit of food trivia that surprised and delighted me. As it turns out, chicory is the root of the same plant that has endive for the leaves!
(Isn’t that picture wild?) I always thought of endive as this really tailored, sophisticated, slightly stuffy French lettuce that existed to be eaten in a salad with apples or pears, blue cheese or goat cheese and walnuts, or perhaps to serve as a fancy boat-like carrier to hold dips and appetizers. But on seeing its wild, untamed roots, I realized that perhaps I had judged Endive too quickly.
Chicory root is mostly processed to yield its inulin fiber, which is then added to all sorts of packaged foods for a variety of purposes.
- To help boost a food’s fiber content (e.g., energy bars like Luna Bars, Gnu bars, Target Market Pantry Fiber Bars, Fiber One bars, etc…)
- To help create a creamy “mouthfeel” in reduced-fat and reduced sugar products (e.g., lowfat/low calorie yogurts like Yoplait)
- To allow manufacturers to make health claims about immunity and GI health (e.g., Stonyfield Farm yogurts, Knudsen/Breakstone’s LiveActive cottage cheese).
But you can’t exactly *taste* chicory when its all powdered and processed and hidden in a sugary yogurt or bar. And by all accounts, chicory has got a nice sweet taste that’s worth experiencing. Which is where chicory coffee comes in. As it turns out, chicory has been used as a (caffeine-free) coffee substitute for ages. I first became tuned into this product when my sister decided to give up caffeine and used chicory coffee to wean herself off of the brew. She recommended I try a brand called Teeccino, either the plain “coffee” variety or one of their flavored varieties, and mentioned it also tasted good iced. I found it at Whole Foods, and was momentarily disappointed to read that in addition to chicory and some other natural ingredients, the product contained barley: a no-no for the celiac set due to its gluten content. But then I read the claim that “brewed teeccino” is certified gluten free. According to the manufacturer “the drip brewing process doesn’t extract gluten into the liquid, as you need alcohol to extract gluten, not boiling water. For gluten sensitive people, we advise using a paper filter to block any grounds from going into your cup that could potentially float through the filter chamber if you have a permanent filter that is more permeable than paper.” (Thanks for the info, Teeccino!) The verdict? This stuff really does taste coffee-like! It’s weaker, but it definitely shared the same character, and I could really see getting into it. (In fact, here’s an open call to all chicory coffee drinkers to send in some preparation tips for us novices!)
I should also point out that there are some instant (rather than brewed) chicory beverages on the market that also contain barley. This means that you end up drinking the actual grounds… rather than liquid filtered through the grounds, and the end product will *not* be gluten free. (One such brand I saw like this was called “Pero“). Fellow celiacs, beware. But everyone else, enjoy!
If you want your chicory with a little bit of real coffee, Cafe du Monde makes a blend of the two that they claim was invented by the French during their civil war when coffee was scarce. Chicory was used as an ‘extender,’ if you will, and the flavor caught on. The company says that chicory adds an almost chocolate flavor that rounds out the coffee’s bitterness. Nestle in France makes a similar instant drink product called Ricore, if you happen to be living in Paris right now and want to pop into your local marche. Apparently, roasted chicory is the secret to New Orleans-style coffee, so next time you’re down there for Jazzfest or Mardi Gras, look for it.
Before we exhaust the topic of chicory beverages, I should also note that brewed chicory coffees do not contain very much inulin/prebiotics. Once again, according to Teeccino’s manufacturer, a 10 oz cup has less than one gram. But between your Jersusalem artichokes, asparagus, onions, fortified yogurts, energy bars and what have you, there are plenty of other ways to get your prebiotic fix.
Alternatively, I’ve seen finely-ground chicory sold as a non-caloric, carbohydrate-free sugar-substitute that’s targeted at diabetics under the brand name Just Like Sugar. As a non-digestible fiber, the inulin in ground chicory root shouldn’t raise blood glucose levels at all. If you use it in small portions like you would sugar (like a teaspoon or two to sweeten your chicory coffee), the amount of actual dietary fiber you’ll get is negligible. But in large portions (like if you downed the whole container), it would provide some dietary fiber. So there you have it. Chicory-based sweeteners are natural and non-caloric and nutritionally legit, if you’re interested in giving them a try.
So there you have it. Everything you never realized you wanted to know about chicory. Perhaps it will come in handy one day if you’re ever someone’s lifeline on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Root Edition’.Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.