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Is Chicory Good for You?

I've discovered that chicory is in several food products that I use and have read that this ingredient may have some effects on glucose control as well as some diuretic properties. Should chicory be avoided?

Answer (Published 11/9/2012)

Chicory, more precisely root chicory (Cichorium intybus), grows all over the United States and is cultivated in Mediterranean areas in Europe, where it is roasted, ground, and used as a coffee substitute. (It looks and tastes something like coffee but is caffeine-free and less expensive than the real thing.) Chicory root is also used as a coffee substitute or additive elsewhere in the world, including the southern United States, particularly in New Orleans. During World War II when shipping from coffee-producing countries was disrupted, chicory was used in the United States to produce "coffee."  Chicory also has been added to certain European beers and ales.

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Chicory doesn't raise blood sugar, but it might trigger reactions in people who are allergic to ragweed pollen and are sensitive to related plants, including chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies and other members of the Asteraceae/Compositae plant family. Because chicory can stimulate the production of bile, consuming it could theoretically be a problem for people with gallstones, but these are unlikely possibilities.

The fact that you're seeing chicory root listed among the ingredients in the foods you buy is because it contains inulin, a carbohydrate fiber. Sometimes called "chicory root fiber," inulin is also found in bananas, wheat, onions, and garlic, but chicory root has very high concentrations. Food manufacturers now extract inulin from chicory root and add it to edible products such as yogurt, ice cream, chocolate bars, breakfast bars, salad dressings and margarine. Because it has a smooth and creamy texture, it has been called the "stealth fiber," and it works well as a replacement for fat. Like other high-fiber foods, inulin prevents constipation, helps maintain a healthy balance of "good" bacteria in the colon, and helps lower cholesterol levels. It can also be used as a sweetener in processed foods - its sweetening power is one-tenth that of sucrose.

The only problem with inulin may be that it doesn't have the texture or taste of fiber. This can make it easy to consume too much, bringing on the same kind of digestive problems caused by an excess of any fiber: gas/bloating, nausea, flatulence, stomach cramping, diarrhea, constipation and digestive "rumbling." A study from the University of Minnesota published in 2010 found that most healthy people can tolerate up to 10 grams of native inulin (one type of inulin product) and five grams of "sweet" inulin (another version) daily. Flatulence was the most common symptom reported by study participants regardless of the type of inulin they consumed. The study was published in the June 2010 Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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