Chicory Root Is a Popular New Anti-Inflammatory Ingredient—Here's What It Is
This herbaceous plant is also a good alternative for coffee drinkers trying to kick caffeine.
Growing up in a family with ties to New Orleans, it was common for my family to serve coffee blended with chicory. After all, Cafe du Monde has served their version of café au lait (chicory coffee with milk) for more than 150 years. But what is chicory, and why is it the new buzzy health food?
First, let's start with what it is: chicory is the root of a blue-flowering perennial plant in the dandelion family. Some varieties produce leafy lettuces (aka chicories) such as radicchio, escarole, or frisée we commonly eat in spring mix salads. Historically, the industry around the chicory root began in Europe in the early 19th century when it was used as an extender to make coffee last longer. Around the Civil War, shipments of coffee in the United States were low due to Union naval blockades cutting off the port of New Orleans, and chicory worked in a pinch. Today, chicory root is found not only in coffee blends like French Market Coffee, but also in powder, capsule, and increasingly popular granule forms to brew like you would regular coffee.
What I didn’t know is the root has amazing health benefits, which is one reason people are adding it to their diets in various ways today. Another reason for the chicory root boom? It's naturally caffeine-free, but when it's roasted and brewed it tastes a whole lot like coffee, so you can get the flavor without the buzz.
Anti-Inflammatory Properties of Chicory
Some inflammation is good. Our body's natural immune response to inflammation helps us recover from infections, wounds, or tissue damage. Too much inflammation (or chronic inflammation) can lead to negative health outcomes like cancer, heart disease, or rheumatoid arthritis. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (think ibuprofen and aspirin) are common treatments to alleviate pain caused by inflammation. But food can be medicine, too. Many foods are naturally anti-inflammatory. Chicoric acid (CA) found in chicory has been shown to have anti-inflammatory benefits according to data published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry and aids in regulating blood sugar levels. The polyphenols, flavonoids, sterols, tannins and other phytochemicals reported in chicory roots are also believed to promote anti-inflammatory activity. "Including chicory root in one's diet is a simple way to sneak in some anti-inflammatory benefits with little effort," says Lauren Manaker, RDN, owner of Nutrition Now Counseling.
Chicory Aids Digestion
You've probably heard your doctor/grandma/parent tell you to "eat more fiber." And they're right. Consuming adequate fiber (the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 14 grams for every 1,000 calories daily) keeps you feeling full, promotes a healthy weight, lowers cholesterol, and even reduces type 2 diabetes risk. Overall, fiber is the main nutrient in helping prevent constipation and other gastrointestinal problems. Chicory root naturally contains soluble fiber, which is the fiber that dissolves in water and turns gel-like during digestion. The fiber of particular interest in chicory root is inulin, a prebiotic fiber.
Those common "high fiber," "low fat," and "gluten-free" claims on many purchased goods likely have inulin listed as an ingredient. Inulin is extracted with hot water from chicory root and used to add fiber to foods, replace some fat in reduced-fat foods thanks to a similar mouthfeel, and to add elasticity in gluten-free foods. So there's a chance you've been consuming chicory root without even knowing it.
"Chicory provides some vitamins and minerals, and also provides a prebiotic called inulin," Manaker says. Prebiotics help us by essentially "feeding" the live and beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in our guts, Manaker continues. Because probiotics are important to good gut health, encouraging their growth with prebiotics, like inulin, assists gut health, too.
Chicory as a Coffee Alternative
Rather than buying your New Orleans coffee with chicory (though still a favorable classic), you can buy a pound of roasted chicory granules to consume on its own. As pictured above, the roasted and ground chicory root resembles coffee. Plus, its flavor is naturally sweet and slightly nutty, so if you're trying to reduce your caffeine intake, brew a cup of chicory instead. "I love chicory coffee as an alternative to caffeinated beverages for women who are pregnant or for anybody limiting their caffeine but wanting to enjoy a warm, coffee-like beverage in the morning," Manaker says.
To make your own cup of chicory joe, simply add the roasted granules to your coffee maker or French Press. A mix of coffee grounds and chicory granules is a nice half-caffeinated option. You can also buy powdered chicory to make a latte by simmering with milk on the stovetop.
If you're not a coffee fan but would still like to reap the benefits of chicory, try taking it in capsule form (like these from Naturevibe Botanicals for $18.39, Amazon). No matter how you ingest chicory's healthy nutrients, the trendy root seems to be here to stay.