We all know how important fiber is for weight management, digestive health and regular bowel movements, among other functions. But did you know there’s a type of fiber called inulin that can improve gut, heart and metabolic health as well?
While it comes in many different forms, what all types of inulin have in common is their ability to act like an insoluble fiber because they’re not able to be broken down or absorbed once they enter the human digestive tract. This, in part, is what provides so many health benefits, which we’ll explore here.
6 Proven Inulin Benefits
So what is inulin exactly? It’s a soluble plant fiber that’s present in high amounts in the chicory plant, along with an estimated 36,000 other plants! Inulin — a type of fructan, oligofructose carbohydrate — along with other fibers (like psyllium husk, for example) is considered a functional plant-based ingredient that effectively boosts digestion and other processes. Dietary fibers have been used for hundreds of years to improve bowel functions and gut health, curb appetite, and help maintain heart health, all completely naturally.
How does inulin work? Other plants that naturally contain inulin include wheat, onions, bananas, garlic, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes — plants that are sometimes called prebiotics. There is more than one type of inulin fiber sold as a dietary supplement, most of which are commonly derived from the chicory plant.
Inulin is present inside the roots of plants as a means of storing energy and regulating the plant’s internal temperature. It has osmotically active properties (a benefit to plants because this helps them resist cold temperatures and survive), a high molecular weight, the ability to absorb a high amount of liquid and a natural resistance to enzymes produced by humans.
What does this translate to when it comes to human health? Inulin takes up a lot room in the digestive tract once eaten, helping to make you feel fuller; absorbs water, which helps to form stool; clings to cholesterol to help prevent metabolic syndrome; and allows you to go to the bathroom more easily. There are among the top six benefits of inulin.
1. Reduces Constipation
Inulin is a soluble fiber, one of three types of dietary fiber, including soluble, insoluble and resistant starch. For a carbohydrate to have soluble fiber properties it must dissolve in water to form a gelatinous material. Inulin’s solubility is considered to be even higher than many other types of fibers, meaning it absorbs water more easily than other carbohydrates and helps form stool that can easily be passed.
Due to its chemical composition, when inulin is mixed with liquid it forms a creamy gel that’s ideal for naturally relieving constipation. When gelled, inulin has a structure similar to lipids (fats) that also help lubricate the digestive system and lessen risk for things like hemorrhoids.
Not only do fructans work by increasing faecal biomass and water content of poop, but they also improve bowel habits because of how they positively affect gastrointestinal functions and rapidly ferment in the colon to produce healthy bacteria.
A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition examined the effects of chicory inulin in constipated elderly people. Over 28 days, participants took 15 grams of the chicory root, and researchers found that “daily supplementation with 15 grams inulin improves constipation and quality of life in an elderly population with constipation.” (1)
2. Improves Gut Health by Acting Like a Prebiotic
Inulin is a type of carbohydrate called an oligosaccharide, which means its chemical composition consists of several simple sugars linked together to form what’s known as a fructan. This composition makes inulin a non-digestible prebiotic, which allows it to pass through humans’ small and large intestines unabsorbed. During this process, inulin naturally ferments and feeds the healthy intestinal microflora (bacterial organisms, including bifidobacterium) that populate the gut.
A 2005 report published in the British Journal of Nutrition stated that insulin and other frucan fibers can help improve gut health. This has very far-reaching benefits: improved immune functioning, protection from heart disease and diabetes, better weight management, improved nutrient absorption, healing leaky gut syndrome, and much more. Oligofructose acts like a prebiotic that impacts the lining of the gut and colon, changing the profile of organisms present and modulating the endocrine and immune functions. (2)
Fermentation of inulin-type fructans in the large bowel stimulates bacteria to grow, which causes significant positive changes in the composition of the gut microflora and significant decreases in the number of potentially harmful yeast, parasites and bacterial species living in the body that trigger inflammation. This is why inulin-type fructans have been found to reduce the risk of colon carcinogenesis and improve management of inflammatory bowel diseases. (3)
3. Helps Curb Appetite
Dietitians recommend that people looking to lose weight eat plenty of fiber in order to feel more satisfied and deal with fewer blood sugar fluctuations. When combined with water, inulin bulks up and forms a gel-like substance that expands in the digestive tract. This can help decrease appetite and cravings — potentially helping with weight loss — because it slows the process of food emptying from the stomach and takes up more volume, which decreases appetite hormones.
The result is that you feel full for longer after eating and deal with fewer hunger pangs. That’s why consuming fiber leads to satiety.
A 2016 study conducted by the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph in Canada confirmed this. For eight days, inulin was added to a yogurt breakfast in young, healthy females in a randomized, controlled trial. Researchers concluded that “the addition of 6 grams inulin to a commercially available yogurt affected feelings of appetite, but not energy intake, after repeated consumption. These results suggest that inulin may be a suitable ingredient to increase dietary fibre consumption, with potential to impact appetite.” (4)
4. Boosts Heart Health and Lowers Metabolic Syndrome Risk Factors
As it passes through the digestive system unabsorbed by digestive enzymes, inulin takes with it toxins, waste, fat and cholesterol particles. This is exactly the reason a high-fiber diet has been tied to heart health in numerous studies.
Research shows some soluble fibers may help lower blood cholesterol, risk for arteriosclerosis and glucose levels. There seems to be an inverse association between fiber intake and systolic and diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol levels, and triglycerides. Soluble fibers in the diet can help lower LDL (“bad”) blood cholesterol by interfering with the absorption of dietary cholesterol and reduce the risk for hypertension, heart disease and metabolic syndrome. (5)
Another benefit of inulin is the fact that it doesn’t cause insulin to be secreted and won’t raise blood sugar since its carbohydrates/sugars cannot be broken down. (6) The body has limited abilities to process fructans, yet inulin’s fiber is still absorbed, which means it has benefits for stabilizing blood sugar. It’s considered suitable for treating diabetics and potentially helpful in managing metabolic syndrome risk factors and blood sugar-related illnesses.
5. Can Replace Sugar and Flour in Recipes
Oligosaccharides are used in food manufacturing and home cooking to improve food’s taste, texture, moisture level and health benefits. While inulin has a very mild taste that makes it versatile in recipes, some people find that it tastes slightly sweet. Compared to sugar (sucrose) it’s said to be about 10 times less sweet.
The chicory plant, the most common and concentrated source of inulin, has chemical similarities to the sugar beet plant that’s often used to derive sugar. The same method is used for the extraction of inulin, although its taste is not as strong as sugar beet.
One advantage of its chemical properties is that inulin can be used in recipes to replace sugar, fat and flour — helping you make healthier, lower-calorie versions of some of your favorite meals or snacks.
How does inulin do this? It contains about 25 percent to 35 percent sugar and starches that work similarly to grain-based flours to absorb water and thicken recipes. It’s also soluble in hot water, which means as long as you heat it it will absorb liquid and can be used in teas, drinks or baked goods. Since it’s non-digestible and forms a gel when mixed with liquid, it’s able to be used in place of oil (the reason you’ll find it in some low-fat cheeses, sauces, soups and condiments).
6. Increases Calcium Absorption
Certain studies have found that inulin helps improve absorption of electrolytes, including calcium and possibly magnesium. How so? It comes down to inulin’s beneficial prebiotic effects within the gut, specifically how it helps the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria that are needed for various metabolic functions. (7)
A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in high-risk populations for calcium deficiency (especially younger girls and older women), the use of chicory inulin helps increase proper absorption of calcium, which might offer protection against disorders like osteoporosis in the long term. Daily consumption of a combination of prebiotic short- and long-chain inulin-type fructans significantly increased calcium enough to enhance bone mineralization during pubertal growth.
Inulin Fiber Uses
Studies have linked the consumption of inulin-type prebiotics to many other health benefits as well, including: (8)
- better infant nutrition, growth and development
- gastrointestinal health
- colon cancer prevention
- better blood sugar control
- healthier cholesterol levels and improved lipid metabolism
- improved bone mineralization
- protection from fatty liver disease
- protection from obesity
- better immunity
Ready to add more to your diet? You can find inulin products in stores labeled a few different ways, including:
- inulin powder, also called insoluble inulin fiber: can be added to recipes or liquids
- inulin prebiotics: often added to probiotic supplements to boost their effects
- inulin added to many fiber formulas, bars, cereals, meal replacements, etc.: also might be labeled “chiory root”
Because inulin fiber is not digested by enzymes in the human body, it’s essentially “calorie-free.” It winds up passing through the digestive system without being fully broken down, in the process helping to feed the good bacteria in your gut (also known as probiotics). This is what it means for inulin dietary fiber to have “prebiotic effects.” It helps the healthy probiotics that make up the human microbiome thrive, repopulate and survive.
Good bacteria basically live off of fibers within the diet, which is why high-fiber foods like fruit, leafy greens and beans/legumes are said to be good for gut health.
Can you taste inulin or tell if it’s in something you’re eating? Normally you can’t. It’s almost totally colorless and odorless, although it does have a slightly sweet taste that some people can pick up on. Because it doesn’t add much to the taste or smell of your foods, it’s easy to use in recipes, mixed into smoothies, or just on its own stirred into water or juice.
You can use inulin as a fiber supplement or look for foods that already contain it. Because of its lubricating, water-absorbing, enzyme-resistant qualities, inulin is used in food manufacturing very often to give products a uniform texture and add chewiness and bulk. It’s added to more and more packaged foods because it has adaptable, unique characteristics in terms of its ability to blend with any taste well, improve the food’s “mouth feel,” and even to replace other ingredients like sugar, fat and flour.
Foods with Inulin:
That being said, the best way to get inulin is through natural foods. Some of the best food sources of inulin include:
- ground chicory root (the most common source of inulin due to its extremely high concentration)
- dandelion root
- leeks and onions
- bananas and plantains (especially when they’re slightly green)
- sprouted wheat (such as the kind used in Ezekiel bread)
- fresh herbs
- burdock root
- camas root
- coneflower, also called echinacea
- yacon root
Is There a Dietary Requirement for Inulin?
While there isn’t a requirement or recommended amount of inulin you should aim for every day, consuming it regularly can contribute to your daily fiber intake. People around the world are believed to consume inulin every single day in the form of natural plant foods and some packaged products. Archaeological evidence from the Chihuahuan Desert near New Mexico suggests that ancient populations living in this region who ate plant-based diets probably consumed about 135 grams of prebiotic inulin-type fructans every single day! (9)
Today, it’s hard to estimate the average inulin intake among adults since it varies a lot from country to country, depending on what foods are present in the diet most. For American adults, the average intake of inulin is estimated to be approximately 10–15 grams per day, mostly coming from fruits, vegetables and packaged foods that contain added chicory root (like cereals, bars and cheeses, for example). (10)
In the U.S., adults are told to aim for 20–35 grams of fiber per day, especially from whole foods. Most children and adults fall short in terms of consuming enough dietary fiber, which is why inulin can be a great addition to the their diets. Studies show the average fiber intake of adults in the U.S. is less than half recommended levels and is even lower among those who follow low-carb diets like the Atkins diet and South Beach diet. (11)
Health authorities stand behind inulin as an easy, low-cost way to help bridge the gap between daily fiber recommendations and what people are actually consuming. And because inulin can be added to common foods like oatmeal, smoothies, juices and baked goods without effecting their taste it’s very simple to use.
Are There Any Inulin Side Effects or Interactions?
Inulin is non-allergic and safe for most people to consume considering it’s completely natural and present in many foods. Studies have shown that chicory is rarely allergenic, and when foods containing inulin cause reactions, it’s usually due to other compounding ingredients like peanuts, milk, soy, shellfish and wheat.
That being said, some people don’t react very well to eating high amounts of certain types of fibers or carbohydrates. Inulin is considered a FODMAP, a class of carbohydrates that are rapidly fermented in the colon and can produce gas and digestive issues for some people.
For people with sensitives to FODMAPs (like those with irritable bowel syndrome on an IBS diet or who have inflammatory bowel disorders), drawing water into the colon in large quantities can lead to worsened symptoms, like cramps, gas and bloated stomach. (12) It’s a good idea to add inulin or other concentrated fibers to your diet slowly to test their effects and also to drink plenty of water to help with lubrication.
Inulin Fiber Takeaways
- Inulin is a a soluble plant fiber that’s present in high amounts in the chicory plant, along with an estimated 36,000 other plants.
- Inulin takes up a lot room in the digestive tract once eaten, helping to make you feel fuller; absorbs water, which helps to form stool; clings to cholesterol to help prevent metabolic syndrome; and allows you to go to the bathroom more easily. It also reduces constipation, improves gut health by acting like a prebiotic, helps curb appetite, boosts heart health, lowers metabolic syndrome risk factors, can replace sugar and flour in recipes, and increases calcium absorption.
- Other benefits include better infant nutrition, growth and development; gastrointestinal health; colon cancer prevention; better blood sugar control; healthier cholesterol levels and improved lipid metabolism; improved bone mineralization; protection from fatty liver disease; protection from obesity; and better immunity.
- You can find inulin products in stores labeled a few different ways, including: inulin powder, also called insoluble inulin fiber, which can be added to recipes or liquids; inulin prebiotics, often added to probiotic supplements to boost their effects; and inulin added to many fiber formulas, bars, cereals, meal replacements, etc., which also might be labeled “chiory root.”
- The best food sources are ground chicory root, dandelion root, asparagus, leeks, onions, bananas, plantains, sprouted wheat, garlic, artichokes, fresh herbs, yams, burdock root, camas root, coneflower, jicama and yacon root.