It grows wild around the world, it might be a weed in your backyard, and its root is the richest source of one of the healthiest dietary fibers you can eat. Chicory root can boost the good bacteria in your gut. But should you swap your regular coffee for roasted chicory? Read on to find out.
What Is Chicory Root?
Chicory, or Cichorium intybus, is the name for a wild, deep-rooted flowering herb and for all of its cultivated varieties, including endive and witloof. Some chicory varieties are grown for their bitter, flavorful leaves, while others are grown as forage for livestock animals. You can eat the whole chicory plant, but today, we’re interested in the root .
Chicory root can be roasted and ground into a coffee substitute or added to tea. It is rich in a type of dietary fiber called inulin, which is responsible for many of the root’s health benefits (and some of its side effects) .
Snapshot of Chicory Root
- Supports beneficial gut flora and intestinal health
- May increase satiety and support weight loss
- Decreases inflammation
- Boosts the immune system
- Strong antioxidant activity
- Lowers blood sugar and cholesterol
- Very safe for all ages and during pregnancy
- Easily grown or gathered
- Very large doses can cause flatulence or bloating
- Bitter taste may be unpleasant to some
What Does Chicory Root Contain?
Chicory root is about 75% water. The remaining dry matter is 4.65% protein, 11% sugars, and nearly 45% inulin fiber. Chicory root also contains micronutrients like calcium, potassium, and magnesium, but not in high enough amounts to affect the daily recommended intake .
Chicory root contains very high levels of inulin, a water-soluble dietary fiber. We humans can’t digest it ourselves; we need the beneficial bacteria in our guts to ferment it. Inulin is often used as a prebiotic: a fiber that promotes the growth of good gut bacteria .
Unlike coffee, chicory root does not contain caffeine .
The active phenolic compounds in chicory root include caffeic acids, coumarins, tannins, chlorogenic acid, and p-hydroxybenzoic acid. These compounds contribute to chicory root’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacity. Many coumarins, in particular, reduce inflammation by blocking TNF-alpha [2, 4].
Health Benefits of Chicory Root
1) Supports Gut Health & Digestion
Chicory root contains bioactive compounds that support intestinal health by improving your gut flora, preventing parasite growth, and lowering inflammation.
Your gut flora or gut microbiome is the name for all the healthy microbes that live in your digestive system. You need a healthy gut flora to maintain overall health and prevent constipation and diarrhea [5, 6, 7].
- Bifidobacteria support general gut health, prevent diarrhea, and keep harmful bacteria from colonizing the gut.
- Anaerostipes and bifidobacteria both produce butyrate, an essential nutrient for the cells of the colon.
Chicory also increases the growth of gut bacteria called Collinsella, which is not simply “good” or “bad.” Collinsella is a two-edged sword. It is beneficial when it doesn’t dominate other good bacteria. It’s also low in people with IBD and boosting it may lower colon cancer risk. But its overgrowth may promote insulin resistance and increase the risk of arthritis [8, 15, 12].
Despite this, inulin from chicory root generally increases good bacteria and decreases bad bacteria in the gut.
Compounds called sesquiterpene lactones may be responsible for chicory root’s antiparasitic activity. Future research will clarify which species of parasites can be killed or controlled with chicory root .
Human health indirectly benefits here because some livestock parasites can infect humans. These animal-to-human diseases represent a serious global health risk .
Chicory root may help manage intestinal conditions like irritable bowel disease (IBD) and dysentery. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, two types of IBD, can be improved with changes to the intestinal flora .
In multiple studies of rats with colitis (inflamed intestines), inulin reduced inflammation and increased the growth of beneficial bacteria. In another study, pigs with colitis ate a diet supplemented with chicory root and sweet lupin beans. This diet completely protected the animals from developing dysentery, an intestinal infection that causes severe diarrhea [3, 24].
In some people with severe ulcerative colitis, surgeons must remove at least part of the colon and rectum and replace them with a “pouch” constructed from a piece of small intestine. This pouch is susceptible to inflammation, which is called pouchitis. Large daily doses of inulin can effectively control and prevent pouchitis in humans [25, 3].
These results are a bit counter-intuitive because inulin is a FODMAP. FODMAPs are highly fermentable fibers that typically worsen IBD and other gut diseases. Generally, a low-FODMAP diet improves symptoms in people with IBD; however, even sensitive guts have tolerated inulin well [26, 27, 28].
In short, people with chronic gut issues, including IBD and chronic pouchitis, may benefit from adding chicory root to their regular diet. If you’re on a low-FODMAPs diet, though, you should avoid chicory root.
2) May Suppress Appetite
Limited studies suggest that chicory root regulates appetite by increasing feelings of fullness. In a mouse study, chicory increased the so-called “satiety hormones” cholecystokinin and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), which make us feel full after a meal [29, 3, 30].
This property could make chicory root an effective weight loss aid, but more research is needed.
3) Lowers Inflammation
In a rat study, chicory root decreased paw swelling and levels of inflammatory cytokines (TNF-alpha, IL-1, and IL-6) in the blood. Chicory also increased glutathione peroxidase, a key enzyme that protects the body from oxidative damage .
In the above study, the alcohol extract of chicory root was slightly more effective than the water extract. This suggests that chicory tea might be a milder anti-inflammatory than other supplement forms .
4) Boosts Immunity
Chicory root may boost the immune system and help the body fight off infections. In multiple animal studies, inulin increased the activity of white blood cells, including T cells, phagocytes, and natural killer cells .
Nutritional supplements containing inulin also increase the effectiveness of vaccines, apparently by boosting the body’s natural defense in response to the immunization .
5) Antioxidant Support
Free radicals and oxidative stress can damage the tissues and cause excessive inflammation and other complications. Chicory root is a powerful antioxidant: it increases the expression of catalase and glutathione peroxidase. These, in turn, bind to and inactivate free radicals, thereby reducing oxidative stress [31, 10].
6) Lowers Blood Sugar
At least one study contradicts this conclusion, having found no significant decrease in blood sugar in people drinking chicory root extract. However, chicory root did lower HbA1c levels – a long-term marker of blood sugar levels [1, 33].
Chicory root may or may not directly reduce blood sugar; however, it does seem to stabilize blood glucose long-term and reduce the risk of diabetes.
7) Natural Sweetener
Chicory root is a low-calorie natural sweetener. Because of its long-term effects on blood glucose, it may be a good sugar alternative for people with diabetes .
Chicory contains inulin and oligofructose, each of which is slightly sweet. Inulin is about 10% as sweet as sugar, and oligofructose is about 35% as sweet as sugar .
Another advantage of using chicory as a sweetener is that, unlike other sugar replacements, chicory does not have a negative effect on food texture. In fact, inulin and oligofructose can be used to add a smooth, pleasant texture to low-fat and low-sugar foods .
8) Lowers Cholesterol
In human and animal studies, chicory root lowers blood LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. However, the effect is not universal. In a small clinical trial, inulin did not change the blood lipid profile in three out of ten participants; it reduced triglycerides in three participants and lowered LDL in the remaining four .
Researchers are working to understand how chicory root affects cholesterol and other fats in the blood. In pigs, chicory root powder significantly decreased cholesterol. Dried chicory root also significantly lowered liver LDL cholesterol and increased liver HDL cholesterol in pigs; higher HDL helps the liver filter cholesterol out of the blood and excrete it [36, 10, 37].
If these results translate from animals to people, chicory root may decrease LDL cholesterol and help the liver clear cholesterol from the blood.
9) Healthy Caffeine-Free Coffee Alternative
Chicory root can be used to make a caffeine-free, phenol-rich alternative to coffee. The smell and taste of chicory root coffee are similar to that of real coffee, though sweeter and more “caramel-like.” Chicory root and chicory-based coffee alternatives contain many of the same chemicals responsible for the smell of coffee. These deteriorate over time, however; using fresh chicory root is key [38, 39].
Chicory coffee may reduce the risk of blood clotting, or thrombosis. After only one week, chicory coffee improved blood markers linked with a lower risk of thrombosis and more flexible red blood cells in 27 healthy volunteers .
If you like the taste of chicory and want to swap regular coffee for a healthier, caffeine-free alternative, give it a try.
Chicory Root Side Effects & Safety
Chicory root is considered very safe.
In moderate amounts, it is also safe and possibly beneficial to gut flora for pregnant women, babies, and children .
- Stomach and gut cramps
With typical doses and in most people who are not sensitive to FODMAPs, these gut side effects are mild. Gas is an inevitable part of bacterial fermentation that results from taking any prebiotic. But for some people, this disadvantage is intolerable [40, 41].
Inulin also appears to cause liver cancer in mice with unhealthy gut flora. To minimize the risk, avoid combining chicory root with a high-fat diet, and start with small amounts of chicory to help your healthy gut bacteria grow .
Because inulin promotes the growth of bacteria in the intestine, it is usually not a good idea for people with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). However, prebiotics like inulin have been shown to improve SIBO, especially when taken along with an antibiotic treatment [45, 46].
How to Eat Chicory Root & How Much to Take
Coffee, Tea, and Extracts
Commercial chicory root is often sold in the form of chicory coffee or tea, though you can also find liquid extracts.
If you’re looking to buy chicory coffee as a caffeine-free alternative, check the label carefully. Sometimes chicory root is mixed with regular coffee, such as in NESCAFÉ Encore. Some brands also add additives and sugar or artificial flavors and sweeteners to chicory coffee. The healthiest option is pure roasted chicory root powder.
If you shop for a liquid extract, make sure to check whether it is a water (aqueous) or alcohol (ethanolic) extract; these two supplemental forms may have different effects on the body. For example, the alcohol extract is a slightly stronger antioxidant than the water extract .
You can also buy inulin powder extracted from chicory root. This will have all of the properties of pure inulin; however, it will not have any of the benefits of chicory’s other active compounds (like caffeoylquinic acids).
Edible chicory plants grow wild in many places around the world, including India, the Mediterranean, the Near East, and the United States. They are even considered an invasive species in multiple US states [31, 47, 48, 49, 50].
You can recognize chicory by its upright stalk, dandelion-like leaves, bright blue flowers, and bitter taste. Use photos and field guides to make sure you correctly identify the plant. Make sure you’re confident in your plant ID before consuming any wild-growing herb .
Chicory leaves and flowers are often used in salads. The roots can be boiled (to reduce their bitter flavor), roasted, and then chopped or milled to make chicory coffee or functional foods .
Wild-type and cultivated chicory seeds are readily available at gardening stores or online. Cultivated chicory can be a bit tricky to grow, but there are many guides online, including some from the agricultural departments of universities. Wild chicory is very hardy; its seeds are sold alone, and it is often included in wildflower mixes intended to attract deer .
Moderate amounts of inulin from chicory in the diet improve gut flora.
Since the range varies and may be highly individual, it would be better to consume chicory root in moderation. Chicory root contains up to 45% inulin, but keep in mind that you also get inulin from other foods. Starting with about 5g/day of chicory will provide you with an additional ~2g of inulin.
One large cup of chicory coffee per day (300 mL) significantly decreased the risk of blood clots in a clinical study .
Infants tolerate 1.5 g of inulin per day very well; children up to eight years old should not have more than 5 g per day, and children up to twelve years old should not have more than 12 g of inulin per day .
300 mL of chicory root water extract per day for four weeks reduced HbA1c, a long-term measurement of blood sugar .
Chicory for Dogs and Cats
Chicory root is sometimes included in commercial dog and cat foods, probably as a source of dietary fiber. Research on chicory for pets is sparse, but one study suggests that inulin ferments safely in dogs’ intestines and may improve their gut flora and overall metabolism .
Chicory root appears to be a safe and possibly beneficial additive to pet food. If you make your own dog food, chicory root may be a good way to add dietary fiber and increase healthy bacteria in their gut.
Limitations and Caveats
Inulin is well-studied, but the other active compounds in chicory root have not received as much attention. As a result, many of chicory’s reported benefits are tied to inulin or attributed to inulin when other compounds may also be involved.
Animal studies make up the majority of advanced research on whole chicory root. This is because chicory is often introduced into the forage of livestock animals such as pigs, cows, and chickens; farmers and the agricultural industry, therefore, have a great deal of interest in this herb.
Most people who supplement with chicory do so to improve the frequency and consistency of their stools; user reviews are very positive. Many people report no longer having constipation after using chicory coffee or tea. Some people say they successfully used chicory tea to improve the symptoms of food poisoning.
Some people use chicory to reduce arthritic inflammation and pain. Such people typically replace their morning coffee with chicory coffee, and they claim to feel significantly better on days that they have chicory.
Most people seem to like the flavor of chicory, though some complain of its bitterness. Some people add chicory coffee to regular coffee grounds to improve the flavor of both.
Buy Chicory Root
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Chicory root is rich in beneficial compounds and inulin, a dietary fiber that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Chicory may also help prevent gut infections, IBD, and gut inflammation.
Besides its digestive benefits, chicory root may help you feel full, boost your immune system, combat oxidative stress, and lower your blood sugar and cholesterol.
Chicory root is sold as a powder, tea, or extract. The powdered, roasted root is a healthy, caffeine-free coffee alternative with a natural caramel-tasting twist; it can also be used as a low-calorie sweetener. Chicory is extremely safe and well tolerated in moderation, even in children and pregnant women. But in excess, it may cause bloating and flatulence.