This Common Health Food Ingredient May Be Making You Bloated

If you experience stomach issues every time you reach for a store-bought granola bar or other processed health foods, this one additive may be to blame.

January 22, 2021
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Photo by: annick vanderschelden photography/Getty

annick vanderschelden photography/Getty

If you’ve ever eaten one too many fiber-rich store-bought brownies, you may have experienced an unwelcome introduction to an ingredient inulin, a common additive to packaged foods derived from chicory root. Chicory root can do a whole lot for your overall health, but the inulin derived from it can cause stomachaches and digestive issues in some people.

Before you start rummaging through your pantry to check ingredient lists, here's what you need to know about inulin and chicory root.

What Is Chicory Root Fiber?

“Chicory root is a plant that contains a natural vegetable fiber known as inulin in its roots,” says Jonathan Valdez, RD, a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The plant is part of the dandelion family, and the root has been cultivated since ancient Egyptian times.

You’ll often see chicory root, inulin or oligofructose as ingredients in packaged foods. “The inulin from chicory root, as well as oligofructose — a shorter chain of inulin — can be extracted and used to increase fiber content in processed foods while simultaneously cutting back on sugar and fats,” says Valdez.

Since the 19th century, chicory root has been combined with coffee — a variety that became exceedingly popular in New Orleans when Louisiana citizens began adding it to coffee to make supplies last longer during the Civil War. To this day, you can find chicory root coffee all throughout The Big Easy.

Today, the ingredient has been added to processed foods such as yogurt, snack bars, and even protein powder in the form of inulin. Inulin is a type of soluble fiber, and packaged foods often contain it so manufacturers can boast higher-fiber benefits. Chicory root can also be used as a binder or fat replacer in meat and poultry products — and can be utilized in baked goods to help with thickening, bulking, adding creaminess, or even reducing fat content.

“It’s also worth noting that whole chicory root may be boiled and eaten as a vegetable,” says Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.

Chicory Root Health Benefits

“Chicory root [contains] a prebiotic fiber, meaning it feeds the good bacteria in your gut,” explains Gillean Barkyoumb, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian in Gilbert, Arizona. “There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Chicory root contains soluble inulin fiber. Getting a balance of both fibers in your diet is best, as they have different roles in supporting our health.” Soluble fiber is particularly beneficial for helping to control cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

Research links chicory root to many health benefits, including healthy digestion, relief for constipation, blood sugar control, cholesterol improvement and even weight loss. “Because it’s a prebiotic, chicory root fiber feeds the good bacteria in your gut, which aids in lowering inflammation and strengthening the immune system,” adds Valdez.

Side Effects of Chicory Root Fiber

Now, let’s talk about those chicory-root-caused stomachaches. “Like other fibers, chicory root fiber can cause gas and bloating when consumed in excess,” says Barkyoumb. Consuming it can also lead to diarrhea.

You may also want to avoid chicory root fiber if you are intolerant to FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols). “Many patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome that I work with do not tolerate it well,” says Young. And you’ll want to stay away from products containing it if you have allergies to ragweed and birch pollen, notes Barkyoumb.

As with any fiber, increase your intake slowly if you’re not used to consuming in higher amounts of fiber. Also stay hydrated to help the fiber move throughout your body. “Symptoms may subside when your body becomes more adjusted to the amount,” says Valdez.

If you’re taking chicory root as a supplement, Valdez notes that the fiber is typically supplemented at 3 to 5 grams per day. “If tolerated, healthy adults can take up to 10 grams per day,” he adds.

No matter what, make sure to track your total daily fiber intake. “Remember that the daily goal is to get 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day,” says Barkyoumb. “Exceeding that amount may lead to bowel discomfort and constipation.”

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in the New York City area and owner of the Plant-Based Eats Etsy store, where she sells healthy meal plans and printables. She’s a regular contributor to many publications, including EverydayHealth.com, ReadersDigest.com, NBCNews.com, and more. She also pens a recipe-focused blog, Amy’s Eat List, where she shares easy, healthy recipes. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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