You Have Probably Eaten This Natural Food Additive Without Knowing It

See the German-language version of this piece at Spektrum der Wissenschaft.

Have you ever heard of inulin? Even if you haven’t, you’ve likely eaten it.

It’s a naturally occurring form of dietary fiber.

You can find it in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs, including wheat, onions, bananas, leeks, artichokes and asparagus.

It’s said that cooking itself is really just chemistry – and for inulin, chemistry has given it some surprising culinary abilities across a range of foods.

Inulin belongs to a class of dietary fibers called fructans.

It helps plants store energy and is typically found in their roots.

In fact, most of the inulin used in our food is extracted from the roots of the chicory plant: this fiber makes up between 15 and 20 percent of chicory roots.

The roots are harvested, sliced and washed.

The inulin is extracted in a diffusion process that uses hot water. It is then purified and dried.

Sugars, such as glucose, fructose and sucrose, represent 6 to 10 percent of this finished powder.

Like any dietary fiber, inulin cannot be broken down by the body or absorbed in the stomach once it is eaten.

It moves through the stomach and into the small intestine, binding with water and swelling in size. This makes people feel full.

Some small studies have shown inulin’s potential for treating obesity and achieving weight loss in people with prediabetes.

Bacteria in the bowels are able to use the substance to grow.

Inulin supports the growth of a special kind of bacteria that are associated with improving bowel function and general health. Research is ongoing.

Scientists have also shown inulin to be a generally safe ingredient in foods, although, as with any dietary fiber, higher doses can cause intestinal discomfort.

But you shouldn’t think of inulin as one thing. There are inulin variants, which are defined by their structure.

Long-chain inulins have a creamy mouthfeel and provide no sweetness, while short-chain inulins taste slightly sweet.

There are mixtures, too.

Longer-chain inulins are suitable as substitutes for fatty texturizers. And shorter-chain inulins serve as sweeteners.

Inulins can be used in hot or cold dishes without breaking down, so they are remarkably versatile in the kitchen.

They can recreate the properties of dairy or egg products.

Foods with inulins are therefore suitable for vegans and people with egg or milk intolerance.

The starchy substances are employed in granola bars and baked goods to increase fiber. And they are even found in fruit juices and sausages.

In some yogurts, inulins serve as a substitute for fat.

Inulins are also used to make ice cream.

They make it smooth, prevent crystallization and reduce the fat content.

In cakes and cookies, inulins serve as binders.

But inulin is not only found in convenience foods.

Have you ever ordered a rich chocolate ganache—or perhaps a dessert with a light tangerine cream?

Inulin could be a key ingredient in either of these culinary delights.

From the restaurant to the dinner table, inulin has been a part of your diet without some people knowing it.

But now it’s a serving of science—explained.

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