Inulin: Is This Commonly Used Fiber Additive Friend or Foe?

Ariel Harsinay

Disclosures

September 18, 2019

Increasing daily intake of fiber is a seemingly simple piece of advice for patients who are looking to improve their gastrointestinal health and reduce their risk for various diseases, but this guidance is more often overlooked than observed. Recent evidence suggests that only 5% of Americans consume fiber in sufficient amounts to reap its considerable benefits.[1]

As clinicians and dietitians try to shed light on America's so-called "fiber intake gap,"[1] food manufacturers have found another means of addressing it: by adding a soluble fiber called inulin to processed foods.[2] On the surface this sounds like a net positive, but when in the form of an additive, inulin contains higher levels of fiber than when in its naturally occurring state, presenting a potential risk for adverse digestive reactions and other health issues.[3]

Inulin, Naturally and as an Additive

Many fruits and vegetables are natural sources of inulin, including bananas, garlic, onions, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichokes,[3] but inulin is most commonly encountered as a food additive in a myriad of products, to the extent that the average American now consumes 1-4 g of inulin every day.[4]

The most common way to obtain inulin is to extract it from the chicory root plant through a water diffusion process. Its chemical structure allows it to pass through the intestinal system without being metabolized. Inulin also has the advantage of adding sweetness and a pleasing texture to processed foods, without the aftertaste that many other fibers often possess, making it a low-calorie substitute for fat and sugar.[5]

Inulin is often added to cheese, candy, yogurt, and salad dressings (Figure).[6] It can generate a creamy, fat-like texture through its ability to form microcrystals when added to either milk or water. Because it can decrease the freezing point in addition to acting as a binding agent, inulin makes an effective sweetener for frozen desserts like ice cream as well as for baked goods.[5]

Figure. Examples of foods and drinks with inulin by dosage level.[6]

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