Conventional wisdom is that the fewer food additives, the better. But sometimes those extra ingredients are designed to do something good for us. That’s the case with inulin, an added fiber showing up in protein powder, low-carb breads, yogurts, and low-cal ice cream. The catch? It doesn’t agree with everyone’s digestive system.
Inulin is a kind of fiber that’s found naturally in foods like asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, and garlic. It’s a “prebiotic”, which means it feeds the beneficial bacteria in your GI system. There’s growing evidence that a well-balanced microbiome (that’s the term for the trillions of bacteria in your gut) may equal better overall health.
Since most adults get only half the fiber they need every day, extra fiber is a good thing. It can mean less constipation, a common complaint. And inulin itself may have some unique health perks: Some research has shown that it might help with weight loss by lowering hunger hormones and boosting fullness hormones. It may also help increase the amount of calcium you absorb from foods you eat.
The drawback: Inulin can give some people (like me!) gas, bloating, and belly pain. It’s broken down quickly by bacteria in the colon, and that process can trigger unwanted symptoms. If you have IBS, you may be especially sensitive to inulin. After learning about inulin, I spotted it on the labels of the fiber bars and cereal I was eating regularly, and connected the dots to the symptoms I was having.
If you suspect you’re sensitive to it as well, keep in mind that you may be able to build up a tolerance to it as your system adjusts. Inulin does help you get more fiber—and nourish the healthy bacteria in your gut—so you could try mixing a small amount of inulin-containing fiber powder into your drinks and gradually increasing the amount over time. Some sensitive folks also do okay with smaller doses. In one study, adults tolerated up to 10 grams (the amount in the popular fiber bar I was eating), but more caused gas and bloating.
Right now, you can’t tell from the Nutrition Facts Panel how much inulin a product contains, but there are clues: If you see inulin or chicory root (a plant that contains inulin) listed in the first few ingredients, it likely contains a fair amount (ingredients are listen in order by weight). If it’s a food that doesn’t normally have fiber, like ice cream, juice, or yogurt, and it contains inulin, check to see how much fiber is listed. Unless it has other added fibers too, that’s probably the amount of inulin it contains.
If you decide to avoid it, check ingredients for “inulin” and “chicory root”. “Prebiotic fiber” may mean inulin as well.