Inulin is a type of fibre found in over 36,000 species of plant roots or tubers. It can be added to food products to increase fibre content or taken as a supplement. Most companies take it from chicory root which is why it’s sometimes listed as chicory root fibre, and that’s the plant which features as the image of this post.
It’s starting to be incorporated more and more into low sugar innovations such as low sugar chocolate in order to increase the fibre content of food since there are many health benefits associated with fibre whilst lowering sugar content and the amount of calories in food products. Please note that inulin is different from insulin!
What Is Inulin?
Inulin is a starchy molecule found in plants and is a type of sugar as well as a source of fibre. Most plants use inulin as a source of energy and store it in their roots. When plants are exposed to cold temperatures, inulin also acts as an antifreeze.
In addition to being used as a way of adding fibre to foods, it is also used to measure kidney function of patients. The FDA have approved inulin as being generally recognised as safe and it is being used across the globe.
Since it is found naturally in plants such as bananas, plantains, garlic, asparagus, artichokes and onions it is pretty safe to say that there’s no harm in consuming it although you wouldn’t be taking it in the same concentrations as if you found it in nature compared to taking it as a supplement or powder.
Why Is It Inulin Used?
Inulin is used in food products for a few reasons:
- When swapped for sugar, it reduces the sugar and number of calories per 100g.
- This is because fibre contains about 2 calories per gram versus sugar which contains 4 calories per gram.
- It increases the fibre in the product which is viewed by many consumers as being healthy.
- This can improve satiety and reduce appetite.
- It may improve gut microbiome diversity.
- This appeals to health savvy consumers who are interested in gut bacteria and gut health.
Some of these reasons may allow for food companies to make health or nutrition claims on their products such as low sugar. The reason you’ll sometimes see chicory root fibre listed (don’t be confused this is essentially the same as inulin), is because chicory root fibre is the cheapest way for companies to extract inulin to use in products.
Potential Health Benefits Of Inulin
#1 – Improved Gut Health
Inulin is a prebiotic which helps to feed a type of bacteria known as bifidobacteria in the gut. The inulin ferments and releases short chain fatty acids which are essential for human health.
Bifidobacteria feed on inulin and other prebiotics as food and can improve gut health by:
- Producing acetic and lactic acid which lower the pH of the colon preventing bad bacteria from growing.
- Stimulating immune system activity.
- Helping the body to synthesise certain B vitamins, specifically:
- B1 (thiamine)
- B3 (niacin)
- B9 (folate/folic acid)
- Improving mineral absorption.
Inulin has been shown to help stimulate the growth of bifidobacteria and with the improvements in gut health associated with bifidobacterial, it can be assumed that inulin is largely beneficial as it improves gut health. Other lab studies have shown that consuming inulin reduces the growth of bad bacteria such as Clostridium Difficile, simply by helping the bifidobacterial to grow and outcompete the bad bacteria for food and other resources.
#2 – Reduced Appetite (Could Aid Weight Loss)
Fibre is known to be rather filling and is used in some cases as a bulking agent. Inulin is no different and for that reason, consuming more fibre in the form of inulin can help you to feel full sooner despite consume less food. It’s particularly effective at supressing appetite when combined with other low calorie foods.
One study with 125 overweight or obese adults found that an inulin containing snack bar reduced appetite, hunger and food intake over a 12 week period. Another study with 40 obese women saw that consuming 16g inulin-type fructans in the morning for 7 days, reduced appetite and food intake at lunch.
The mechanism in which inulin helps to reduce appetite is thought to be due to:
- Increasing synthesis of the hormone peptide YY which has been shown to suppress appetite.
- Altering neural activity in the brain to reduce appetite.
- Increasing synthesis of glucagon-like peptide-1, a hormone which is released after a meal that helps to slow down the gastric emptying of the stomach, helping to improve satiety.
#3 – Reduced Blood Sugar
Fibrous foods such as cruciferous vegetables have been thought to have a low glycemic index, partly due to their high fibre content. If that’s the case, it isn’t too much of a surprise that consuming inulin, a type of fibre, helps to reduce and control blood sugar levels within the body which will help to stabilise energy levels.
#4 – Enhanced Mineral Absorption
Consuming inulin is thought to have the potential to increase mineral absorption, especially with calcium and magnesium. One study found that inulin supplementation increased calcium absorption and retention without any adverse effects on other mineral retention. Whilst another study found that the increased calcium absorption was not accompanied with increased urinary excretion suggesting that inulin may provide a good way of improving calcium retention and bone mineral density.
Another study looked at 15 postmenopausal women who took inulin or a placebo for 6 weeks and found that the inulin group had an increased absorption of magnesium and calcium.
One reason suggested for the enhanced mineral absorption associated with inulin is due to the fermentation of inulin to produce short chain fatty acids which helps to reduce luminal pH and modify calcium (and other mineral) solubility so that more calcium and other minerals can be absorbed.
Drawbacks Of Inulin
Whilst there are many great things linked to inulin, there are a few downsides.
#1 – Gastrointestinal (GI) Distress
Inulin is a type of fibre and lots of fibre can cause gastrointestinal distress which may result in:
- Abdominal cramping
- Loose stools
- Frequent bowel movements
This is especially true if you’re not used to consuming lots of fibre. If you start consuming more inulin or other fibre, start off with smaller quantities and increase your dose until you’ve found a comfortable range where you aren’t experiencing any side effects. Discomfort is likely to be observed if you’re consuming between 7 – 10g inulin per day so try starting off with 2 – 3g initially.
#2 – More Expensive
If you’re buying foods which contain inulin added to them such as protein bars (or most high protein, low carb food bars) then because of the added fibre to keep the carbohydrates low you’ll likely find that these bars are more expensive.
#3 – Allergic Reactions
In some rare instances, allergic reactions to inulin have been observed. Whilst it’s rare and unlikely to occur, it’s good to be aware of. People who are hypersensitive or who have many allergies may want to be cautious if taking inulin or if it’s being administered in order to measure the filtration rate of kidneys in humans.
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