It has been hailed as a new super food, an answer to cancer, obesity and high blood triglycerides, but what is inulin?
The recent spate of attention paid to inulin might lead you to think that it is a new, chemically-based food additive, but in fact it is neither new nor chemical. It is a plant storage carbohydrate - like starch or sugar - a starchy substance found in a number of edible food plants, and happens to have a number of useful properties. In the book Inulin-Type Fructans (2005), author M.B. Roberfroid asserts that inulin-containing food plants have been used to promote digestive health for as much as 5000 years, although it has only recently garnered a great deal of scientific attention.
Unlike many carbohydrates, inulin is not digested in the upper gastrointestinal tract, and so is comparatively low in available calories. Instead, it is fermented by the flora of the lower digestive tract, specifically the probiotic bifidobacteria and lactobaccilli. This 'good bacteria' feeds on the inulin, and as a result is able to flourish and multiply, creating a healthy intestinal ecosystem. According to the National Cancer Institute, this thriving community of microflora then has an increased ability to fight off toxins, pathogens and carcinogens. Additionally, the increased numbers of microflora create a more acidic environment, which is inhospitable to these same disease-causing agents.
In addition to potential activity in cancer prevention, the Journal of Nutrition lists the following functional properties of inulin:
- Dietary Fiber: Inulin adds bulk to stool, improves blood lipid profiles and reduces the caloric value of foods. For these reasons, even though it is a storage carbohydrate and most types of dietary fiber are structura; carbohydrates, inulin is treated biochemically as a source of dietary fiber.
- Food Additive: The molecular size of inulin allows it to form tiny microcrystals when dissolved in liquid. Though not perceptible by mouth, these tiny structures give a creamy, fat-like feeling to substances containing inulin. It also has a mild, sweet taste that makes it a pleasant addition to many foods. Inulin is used in this respect as a food additive to add flavor and texture to low-calorie foods without adding extra calories.
- Calcium Absorption: Early studies on rats indicate that inulin supplementation might increase calcium absorption from the diet, making it a good potential treatment or preventative for osteoporosis.
Sources of Inulin
According to the Journal of Nutrition, inulin is naturally present in more than 36,000 plant species. Most notably, chicory, Jerusalem artichoke and garlic. Most medical-grade inulin used today is extracted form chicory, but it can also be synthesized in the laboratory from simple sucrose.
What Is Inulin Used For?
Now that you understand inulin better, you may wonder, what is inulin used for? It is used in a huge variety of food products. Low-fat yogurts, custards, ice creams and puddings will often make use of the product to add creaminess. It may also be present in jams or jellies to enhance the natural sweetness of the product. To see if your food product contains inulin, check the ingredient label for any of the following inulin aliases:
- Chicory Extract
- Chicory Inulin
- Dahlia Inulin
- Long-chain Oligosaccharides
Inulin is also available as a dietary fiber supplement. Fiber Choice uses inulin as its primary source of fiber, and Metamucil Clear and Natural as well as Now Foods Prebiotic formula each contain 100 percent inulin.
If you want to take inulin simply to lose weight, you may be disappointed. If, however, you are looking for a safe and natural fiber supplement or sugar alternative that happens to have a number of other health-promoting properties, inulin might be a good choice for you.