It grows wild around the world, it might be a weed in your backyard, and its root is packed full of one of the healthiest dietary fibers you can eat. Chicory root can feed 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) .
- Supports beneficial gut flora and intestinal health
- May increase satiety after meals
- May support the immune system
- 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 the gut 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].
A 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 .
A 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 [7, 8].
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.
Potential Benefits (Possibly Effective)
Chicory has produced the benefits below in multiple human trials, but these are not considered sufficient to recommend chicory as a therapeutic option. While chicory root is very safe as a food, the FDA has not approved it for any medical purpose or health claim. Talk to your doctor before adding a large quantity of chicory to your diet.
1) 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 [9, 10, 11].
Chicory’s most abundant active compound, inulin, promotes the growth of various beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium and Anaerostipes species [12, 13, 14, 15].
These may sound complex, but their role in health is straightforward [16, 17, 18]:
- 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 wall.
Chicory also increases the growth of gut bacteria called Collinsella, which is not simply “good” or “bad.” Collinsella is beneficial when it doesn’t dominate other good bacteria. It also tends to be low in people with IBD and colon cancer, but its overgrowth has been associated with insulin resistance and arthritis [12, 19, 16].
Despite this, inulin from chicory root generally increases good bacteria and decreases bad bacteria in the gut.
Intestinal Parasites in Livestock
In some parts of the world, chicory is deliberately sown in pastures to improve nutrition and prevent parasites in livestock; it is unclear whether this practice is effective [20, 21, 22].
Chicory root appears to effectively control certain species of parasitic worms (like porcine whipworms), but not others (like chicken roundworms) [23, 24, 25, 26].
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 some people with severe ulcerative colitis, surgeons must remove at least part of the colon and rectum and replace it with a “pouch” constructed from a piece of small intestine. This pouch is susceptible to inflammation, which is called pouchitis. In a clinical trial of 18 patients, large daily doses of inulin effectively controlled and prevented pouchitis flare-ups in humans [28, 3].
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, 29].
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 [30, 31, 32].
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-FODMAP diet, though, you may want to avoid chicory root. Talk to your doctor if you’re not sure.
2) Blood Sugar
In a rat study, compounds from chicory (called caffeoylquinic or chlorogenic acids) reduced glucose release from the liver .
At least one human 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, 34].
Chicory root may or may not directly reduce blood sugar, stabilize blood glucose long-term, and reduce the risk of diabetes. Additional human trials are needed.
Potential Benefits with Insufficient Evidence
Chicory has produced the benefits below in at least one human trial, but these have produced either unclear or contradictory results. While chicory root is very safe as a food, the FDA has not approved it for any medical purpose or health claim. Talk to your doctor before adding a large quantity of chicory to your diet.
In human and animal studies, chicory root lowered 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 [35, 14, 36].
If these results translate from animals to people, chicory root may decrease LDL cholesterol and help the liver clear cholesterol from the blood. Larger and more robust human trials will be required.
Animal Research (Lacking Evidence)
No clinical evidence supports the use of chicory root for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
Limited studies suggest that chicory root could regulate 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 [37, 3, 38].
This property could make chicory root an effective weight loss aid, but more research is needed.
As mentioned above, chicory may lower gut inflammation – and it may also decrease inflammation in the rest of the body [3, 39].
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 .
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 increased the effectiveness of vaccines in mice, apparently by boosting the body’s natural defense in response to the immunization .
7) Antioxidant Activity
Free radicals and oxidative stress can damage the tissues and cause excessive inflammation and other complications. Chicory root is a powerful antioxidant: it increased the expression of catalase and glutathione peroxidase in animal studies. These, in turn, bind to and inactivate free radicals, thereby reducing oxidative stress [39, 14].
Side Effects & Safety
Chicory root is considered safe to consume as food or coffee substitute.
In low to moderate amounts, it is also safe and possibly beneficial to gut flora for pregnant women, babies, and children .
In adults, an excess of inulin (14 – 20 g per day) may cause [40, 41]:
- 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].
Some people may be allergic to chicory; rare allergies have been reported [42, 43].
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 has been shown to improve SIBO, especially when taken along with antibiotic treatment [45, 46].
How to Eat Chicory Root
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. Chicory is even considered an invasive species in multiple US states [39, 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 .
In adolescents and adults, up to 10-15 g per day of inulin is expected to increase populations of beneficial gut bacteria without causing bothersome side effects [53, 40].
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 .
Since the range varies and may be highly individual, we recommend only consuming 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 blood clotting in a clinical study .
300 mL of chicory root water extract (similar to chicory coffee) 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 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.
Chicory root is rich in beneficial compounds and inulin, a dietary fiber that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Early clinical research suggests that it may help control IBD, blood sugar, and possibly cholesterol.
Chicory root is sold as a powder, tea, or extract. The powdered, roasted root is a healthy, caffeine-free coffee alternative with caramel-like flavor; 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.