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12 Interesting Facts About Chicory

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Introduction

Chicory is a somewhat bitter leafy green that has long been used as a coffee substitute or additive. The chicory plant has bright blue flowers and is part of the dandelion family. Beyond its use in coffee and tea, chicory also has a long history of use as a medicinal plant.

Chicory might not be the most popular vegetable, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting. Read on to learn some fascinating facts about this underappreciated plant.

1. Chicory root can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute

The root of the chicory plant can be dried, roasted, and ground into a powder that makes for an excellent coffee substitute. It has a rich, earthy flavor and contains no caffeine. Using chicory as an additive or substitute for coffee has been a common practice in Europe since the 19th century.

During World War II and the French occupation, chicory root helped supplement coffee rations. The French and other Europeans still commonly enjoy chicory coffee today.

2. Thomas Jefferson grew chicory at Monticello

Chicory has a long history in the United States as well. None other than Thomas Jefferson grew chicory at his Monticello estate in the late 18th century. Jefferson was interested in chicory as both a coffee substitute and for its medicinal qualities.

3. Chicory root contains the prebiotic fiber inulin

Fresh chicory root contains up to 20% of inulin fiber, which is classed as a prebiotic. Prebiotics help feed the beneficial bacteria that live in your gut, supporting better digestion and wellness.

4. The ancient Egyptians recorded medicinal uses for chicory

The first known record of chicory use by humans comes from ancient Egypt. Chicory is described in Egyptian hieroglyphs from over 4,000 years ago as a medicinal plant used to treat various ailments. The ancient Egyptians mainly used chicory leaves and seeds for medicine.

5. Chicory leaves can be eaten in salads

The young leaves of chicory can be added to salads for a bitter, earthy kick reminiscent of radicchio or endive. When harvested in early spring, chicory leaves are the least bitter and make for a great salad green. They go well with sweet dressings or ingredients like fruit, nuts, and cheese.

6. Chicory coffee may support liver health

Some research indicates that drinking chicory coffee could potentially benefit your liver. A study in rats with liver injury found that chicory coffee reduced liver damage compared to regular coffee. Researchers think specific antioxidants in chicory root called caffeoylquinic acids are responsible for its protective effects. More research is needed, but substituting some coffee for chicory version could support liver health.

7. Chicory root extracts have anti-parasitic effects

Chicory extracts have been shown to kill parasites like roundworms and hookworms in test tubes and animals. One study gave chicory extracts to mice with parasitic infections and found it reduced worm counts by over 90% compared to controls. Researchers think this anti-parasitic effect comes mainly from sesquiterpene lactones, bitter compounds found in chicory’s white milky sap.

8. Chicory could lower blood sugar in diabetes

Some early research shows chicory root fiber could help control blood sugar in diabetes. Inulin from chicory helps feed good gut bacteria, which in turn improves insulin sensitivity. One study had people with diabetes take chicory root extract daily for 3 months. The chicory group had 30% lower hemoglobin A1c levels compared to placebo, indicating better average blood sugar control. More research is underway.

Chicory is a member of the Asteraceae family of flowering plants, making it a relative of endive, dandelion, artichoke, and lettuce. Chicory flowers resemble wild dandelions but are usually light purple or blue color instead of yellow.

10. Chicory grows wild as a roadside plant

Wild chicory grows commonly along roadsides and in fields across Europe and North America. It can also be found around old house foundations. Wild chicory has sky blue flowers that open during the morning and close up at night. The leaves and roots can be foraged for food or herbal use.

11. Chicory inspired the first successful coffee substitute

In the 1700s, a German merchant named Friedrich Christian Accum developed and marketed an imitation coffee bean made from roasted chicory root. It became popular across Europe as a coffee substitute and additive. Accum was the first person to successfully commercialize a coffee alternative, over 150 years before products like Postum first hit the market.

12. Chicory root extracts are used as natural food additives

Today, chicory root is processed on an industrial scale to extract inulin and other substances for use by the food industry. Inulin from chicory serves as a natural food additive to enhance taste, texture, and nutrition in products ranging from yogurt to protein bars. It also serves as a fiber supplement.

Conclusion

While you may not find chicory at the typical grocery store, it’s a fascinating plant with a rich history. From its medicinal uses in ancient Egypt to inspiring one of the first coffee substitutes, hopefully you’ve learned to appreciate chicory in a whole new light.

Chicory root makes for an excellent caffeine-free, liver-supporting coffee alternative if you can get your hands on it. And if not, keep an eye out for this pretty blue-flowered weed on your next drive or hike. It just might have some hidden benefits.


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