Inulin is a soluble dietary fibre. It is a naturally occurring oligosaccharide (several simple sugars linked together) belonging to a group of carbohydrates known as fructans. Unlike most carbohydrates, inulin is non-digestible. This allows it to pass through the small intestine and ferment in the large intestine. Through the fermentation process, the inulin becomes healthy intestinal micro flora (bifidobacterium).
Natural Sources of Inulin
Inulin is naturally present in many different foods. Some every day foods, such as asparagus, leek, onions, banana, wheat and garlic are sources of inulin. Higher concentrations exist in herbs. Dandelion root, elecampane root and chicory root all have large amounts of inulin. Chicory root is the most common source of inulin due to its extremely high concentration as well as its similarities to the sugar beet. The methods used for the extraction of inulin from the chicory root are comparable to the extraction of sucrose from the sugar beet. This allows for similar equipment to be used, making it easier for chicory root producers to cultivate inulin.
Inulin in Consumer Products
Inulin has a number of health benefits. As a result this dietary fibre is used as a prebiotic agent in functional foods to stimulate the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria. It is soluble in hot water, allowing the inulin to be easily incorporated into drinks, dairy products, and baked goods.
Furthermore, inulin has a multitude of characteristics beneficial to functional foods. The use of non-digestible oligosaccharides (inulin) can improve taste, texture, and moisture in many foods. Inulin has gelling characteristics that can be used to make low fat cheeses, sauces, soups and table spreads. Its melting properties allow for easy processing of frozen desserts. Binding characteristics allow for inulin to be used in cereal bars. Additionally, as a fructan, inulin can be substituted for sugar when a reduced sugar content is desirable.
Is Inulin Allergenic?
Inulin is present in many foods consumed by the entire population. Every year, millions of people consume inulin in some form of commercial product. Inulin used for commercial purposes is a complex carbohydrate acquired from the chicory root. There have been a minute number of cases that have reported allergic reactions to chicory. In these cases, the reaction may have been due to other ingredients. It has been concluded that chicory is rarely allergenic. Other allergenic foods, such as peanuts, milk, soy, shellfish, and wheat are considered to have a drastically higher allergenic potential. An estimated 15 million people are allergic to these foods. Clearly, the likelihood of chicory root as an allergenic is significantly low.
Due to consumption habits varying between factors such as age, gender and locale, it is difficult to pinpoint the average inulin intake. For American adults, the intake is estimated at approximately 10-15g per day. Current recommendations for dietary fibre for American adults is 20 - 35 g per day. The daily value used in the Nutrition Facts table is 25g. Current recommendations for dietary fibre for Canadian females is 21 – 25 g per day, and for Canadian males is 30 - 38 g per day. The daily value used in the Canadian Nutrition Facts table is also 25g. Meaning, most adults dietary fibre consumption lies well below the daily requirements. By converting to functional foods containing inulin, this deficiency can be eliminated without the need to give up common household favourite foods such as bread, cereal, and baked goods.