What exactly is Inulin

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There are many type of fiber such as Lignan, Cellulose and Dextrin.  One of the other kinds of fiber is known as Inulin.  The common thing in all fibers is that all of them are plant based since fibers are plant cells which cannot be digested by human enzymes.  In this article which was initially published in http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2015/05/05/what-is-inulin-chicory-root-fiber we will see what exactly is inulin.

If you’ve eaten anything that comes in a box, a bar shape or package carrying a “high fiber” or “gluten-free” claim, there’s a very good chance you’ve partaken of inulin, also known as chicory root fiber or chicory root extract. In the spirit of making sure you recognize all the words on your food’s ingredient label, perhaps you might be curious as to what, exactly, inulin is.

Inulin is a type of fiber, meaning it’s a plant-based carbohydrate whose bonds cannot be broken by human digestive enzymes. Like all fibers, therefore, dietary inulin is not digested in the small intestine but instead travels intact onto to the colon (large intestine), making it fodder for the resident gut bacteria and contributing to the bulk of our stools. Inulin occurs naturally in some vegetables and is also isolated from the roots of chicory plants – whose leaves you may recognize as the leafy vegetable called endive – to be added to processed foods.

But different dietary fibers have different properties, and these properties contribute to how the fiber behaves in our body. In the taxonomy of fibers, inulin is classified as both “soluble” and “prebiotic.”

Soluble fibers are so named because they are “water soluble,” meaning they’re able to hold water and gel up into a viscous texture. This makes inulin a popular additive to foods for its moisture-enhancing and creamy texture-providing properties. Inulin is especially popular in low fat or dairy free yogurts/ice creams and in ready-to-drink protein shakes for the creamy mouthfeel it imparts. It’s commonly used in gluten-free breads and baked goods to replace the elastic, gummy properties of gluten. Soluble fibers also slow down the time it takes for a food to travel the length of the bowel, aiding in satiety after meals and potentially more modest effects on blood sugar.

Inulin is also the added-fiber of choice for high fiber bars, energy bars, cereals, breads, granolas – especially low-carb ones – for several reasons. First, it’s cheap to manufacture and makes products appear healthier by boosting their fiber content. Since fiber doesn’t have calories by nature of its being indigestible, adding fiber like inulin to processed foods can provide substance and bulk without the calories. Secondly, inulin has a naturally sweet taste; in fact, powdered inulin is marketed as a calorie-free sweetener. This is an attractive feature for food manufacturers of low-carb products in particular, as they can use inulin to impart some sweetness without sugar, and some substance without calories or carbs. Inulin’s pleasant taste profile and favorable economics may also explain why it was used as a “coffee extender” during times of shortages in the past; indeed, to this day, “New Orleans Style” coffee is a blend of coffee and chicory root powder (inulin).

Inulin is also known as a “prebiotic” fiber based on the fact that it’s highly fermentable by the friendly bacteria in our guts. Prebiotics are, in essence, like food for “probiotics;” or, a source of nutrition for gut bacteria that helps nourish them and enable them to thrive. It’s not surprising, then, why inulin is often included in probiotic supplements or other digestive health supplements. However, digestively healthy and digestively tolerable are two different things, and it’s important to mention that the more fermenting your gut bacteria do, the more gas they produce as a byproduct. In other words, large doses of prebiotic fibers like inulin can cause gastrointestinal distress such as gas, bloating and pain in some people. Very sensitive individuals, like those with irritable bowel syndrome, can experience symptoms at even minute doses, like 0.5 to 1 gram. People with “normal” digestive function may tolerate 5 to 10 g of inulin without discomfort.

So now that we’ve established what inulin is, the question remains: Should you eat it?

My philosophy as a dietitian is that if you tolerate inulin, it’s on balance a good, health-promoting fiber to include in your diet. The caveat here, however, is that I recommend getting your inulin from whole foods, like inulin-rich vegetables that happen also to be super nutrient dense, rather than from highly-processed foods such as junky fiber bars and deceptively sugary “high-fiber” breakfast cereals. Inulin’s potential health benefits don’t justify the intake of excess sugar, artificial ingredients and generally empty calories. The richest sources of dietary inulin include:

  • Jerusalem artichoke/sunchoke
  • Jicama
  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Onion (including onion powder)
  • Leeks
  • Garlic (including garlic powder)
  • Green/unripe bananas
  • Wheat

Note that Jerusalem artichokes are especially high in inulin and can provoke excess gas and bloating in people who generally have no digestive sensitivity. Since Jerusalem artichokes happen also to be exceedingly delicious, it can be hard to control portions when offered a seasonal sunchoke soup or side of mashed sunchokes. If you’ve never had them before, I might suggest being conservative with your first foray so you don’t overdo it!

If you’re someone who routinely suffers from problematic gas and bloating, you may find it way more comfortable to limit your intake of highly fermentable fibers like inulin, even from the nutritious whole foods described above. Similarly, scanning the ingredient labels of these foods for “inulin” or “chicory root” is also advisable:

  • Energy, protein, meal replacement and granola bars
  • Ready-to-drink protein shakes and smoothies
  • 100-calorie yogurts/Greek yogurts
  • Coconut milk-based yogurts and frozen “ice creams”
  • High-fiber breakfast cereals
  • Breads marketed as low calorie, reduced carb or high fiber
  • Gluten-free breads and waffles
  • Herbal coffee substitutes or New Orleans’ Style coffee
  • Digestive and herbal teas
  • Probiotic supplements, powdered fiber supplements or digestive health supplements

Author Info – Alyssa Cohen, a dietetic intern and master’s degree candidate at Columbia University Teacher’s College in New York City, contributed to this article.

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