Inulin
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | May 13, 2008

The Westernized diet lacks fiber. We process foods such as wheat or corn until there’s nothing left and then try to put it back together. When the refined foods are combined with the lack of vegetables and fruit in our diet, it’s no wonder that we’re constipated and have digestive issues. Adding fiber to our foods has been tricky because of taste and texture issues, but there’s a new fiber in town and it’s got an impressive reputation. The fiber is inulin and it’s the topic of this Newsletter.

What Is Inulin?
There are two basic types of fiber--insoluble and soluble. Insoluble cannot be broken down, will absorb water, and adds bulk to the stool. Soluble fiber can absorb water but in addition, it can be broken down by bacteria in the gut. Inulin is this type of fiber.

Inulin is a fructose-based fiber rather than a glucose-based fiber such as cellulose, which makes up the cell walls of plants. Just like cellulose, inulin resists digestion because of the chemical bonds that hold the fructose units together. Inulin is found in just about every vegetable and fruit including bananas, wheat, and allium-containing vegetables such as onions and leeks. One of the primary sources of inulin in supplement form is chicory root.

Inulin is considered a prebiotic; that means that as it’s broken down by bacteria in the gut, the fructose feeds the bacteria. In this case that’s a good thing, because research has shown that it helps the colony of Bifidobacteria in the colon (1). Bifidobacteria are a class of bacteria that are beneficial to digestive-system health as well as immune health.

One of the great properties of inulin is that it can be produced in chains of various lengths. The shorter chains are sweeter and can add sweetness to food. The longer chains add texture to foods and give the mouth the texture that resembles fat. However, whether short or long chain, both add fiber to the diet. Inulin is odorless and tasteless, so it can be added to any liquid without altering the taste. It can also be used in cooking and baking without changing the beneficial attributes of the fiber.

Inulin Research
The research on inulin has increased in recent years. The following are summaries of research on inulin:

In a review article, Guarner reviewed the research on the benefits of inulin for inflammatory intestinal disorders such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel disease (2). Studies demonstrated a reduction in inflammation in intestinal cells and the stimulation of beneficial bacterial colonies such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria.

In another study, subjects with chronic constipation were given 20 grams of inulin in semi-skim milk every day for 20 days. Constipation and associated factors were significantly reduced in subjects taking inulin (3).

Clinical trials that have added inulin to infant formula have resulted in significant improvement in the bacterial colony of the colon and a reduction in the incidence of gastrointestinal and respiratory infections as well as atopic dermatitis (4).

Inulin may be beneficial to serum lipids including reduced triglyceride levels and total cholesterol (5).

Bottom Line
You should eat your vegetables and fruit every day. But refined and processed foods are not going away anytime soon, so it may be beneficial to take a prebiotic soluble fiber that contains inulin. Depending on your diet, 5-15 grams per day should not cause any digestive issues such as loose stool or cramping, but ramp up slowly. I’ve revised my fiber cocktail to include a probiotic such as acidophilus, soluble fiber containing inulin, and an insoluble fiber such as ground psyllium husks. Give it a try--your entire body will love you for it.

References:
  1. Gibson, GR. Dietary Modulation of the Human Gut Microflora Using the Prebiotics Oligofructose and Inulin. J. Nutr. 129: 1438S–1441S, 1999.

  2. Guarner, F. Inulin and oligofructose: impact on intestinal diseases and disorders. British Journal of Nutrition. 2005;93 Suppl1:S61–S65.

  3. López, R et al. The effect of a fibre enriched dietary milk product in chronic primary idiopathic constipation. Nutr Hosp. 2008 Jan-Feb;23(1):12-9.

  4. Veereman G. Pediatric applications of inulin and oligofructose. J Nutr. 2007 Nov;137(11 Suppl):2585S-2589S.

  5. Jenkins, DA et al. Inulin, Oligofructose and Intestinal Function. J. Nutr. 129: 1431S–1433S, 1999.
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