Chicory Root Is a Gut Healthy Plant That Can Mimic Coffee
Chicory is showing up everywhere, from coffee to packaged foods. Here's what you need to know about it.
If you've seen chicory root coffee at the grocery store and been confused about what it actually is, you're not alone. While mainstream American food culture has long been embracing chicory leaves—tightly packed heads of bitter leaves like endive and radicchio—using chicory root in foods and drinks is relatively new to most of us.
While the root is edible, it's not really something you roast with olive oil and salt and just eat straight-up. Instead, the bitter root is typically roasted, ground and used as either an additive or a coffee alternative. Here's what you need to know about chicory root, its uses and its potential health benefits.
What is chicory root fiber?
"Chicory roots are the roots of the chicory plant that are known for being high in fiber," says Kelli McGrane, M.S., RD, a dietitian for Lose It! and author of The Healthy Toast. "Specifically, chicory roots are rich in a type of fiber called inulin, which is often referred to as chicory root fiber." Chicory root fiber is often added to commercial food products as a way to increase fiber, McGrane says. This typically reduces the number of calories in the food, as well. Learn more about why fiber benefits your health.
Are there health benefits?
"One of the benefits of inulin is that it's a prebiotic, meaning that it can support the growth of beneficial bacteria (called probiotics) in your gut," McGrane says. "This is important, as good gut health has been linked with weight loss, digestive health, improved immune function and optimized nutrient absorption." One thing to note here is that many types of fiber function as prebiotics, so any high-fiber diet—one that's rich in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds—will offer this same gut health benefit (learn more about prebiotics and prebiotic-rich foods). Like some other types of fiber, "chicory root fiber has also been shown to be good for relieving constipation and improving blood sugar control, especially in individuals with diabetes," McGrane says.
Chicory root also contains small amounts of vitamin B6 and manganese, although you're unlikely to eat enough of it to really get significant amounts of these nutrients.
What is chicory root coffee?
Chicory root has an intensely rich and bitter flavor—think of how bitter even endive and radicchio leaves are—which is why we typically don't eat it on its own. But, this flavor profile makes chicory root a great coffee substitute.
"Chicory root coffee is a beverage that's made from chicory roots that have been ground, roasted and brewed," McGrane says. "On its own, chicory root coffee has a similar taste and color as traditional coffee, but is a bit woodier." In France, where chicory root grows natively, Nestlé sells a beverage called Ricoré, which is 60% chicory and 40% coffee. This kind of coffee-chicory mixture is also popular in New Orleans, and in some other countries. While this tradition likely started as a way to stretch coffee grounds (which are more expensive than chicory root), some people now do it as a way to lessen the caffeine content of a cup of coffee.
While chicory root coffee is delicious and caffeine-free, it doesn't really contain much fiber, since the grounds are strained out of the finished drink. There's nothing wrong with that, but keep in mind that you won't get the same prebiotic benefits from chicory root coffee as from the root itself.
Are there any potential downsides to chicory root?
"As chicory root fiber cannot be digested, eating too much of it can cause gas and bloating," McGrane says. "Individuals with IBS in particular may be more likely to experience GI side effects from chicory root fiber." Again, the same can be said for many types of fiber, and these negative effects only happen when you eat a ton of chicory root at once.
Chicory root can be a great addition to a healthy diet, but there's no need to seek it out.
If you're curious about the woody taste of chicory root coffee, or if your favorite packaged foods contain chicory root fiber, great! You'll reap the benefits of prebiotic fiber from the root, and won't get as much caffeine as you would from a regular cup of coffee. But like all foods, it's not a magic bullet for good health.