A classic coffee replacement makes a comeback as a healthy powerhouse.
Chicory root coffee may now seem like a specialty, unique to the gastronomy of New Orleans, but this plant has a much more pervasive history. From France to ancient Egypt to Africa, it seems chicory has an international culinary and cultural influence unexpected from a plant with bright blue flowers related to the dandelion.
More recently, chicory has been flaunted as an inconspicuous herb packed with powerful health benefits. With claims of being heart-friendly to those as drastic as having the power to reduce the risk of diabetes, this humble plant has a big reputation to live up to. So what is it exactly about a common perennial that gives it these beneficial characteristics? Today we’ll find out the science behind these claims and where to get your own taste of chicory right here on the Central Coast.
Chicory is making a comeback. While it may have faded from popularity, only to surge on the health scene in recent years, chicory has a rich, intercontinental history where it was popularly used as an herbal medicine throughout Asia and Europe. “Historically, chicory was grown by the ancient Egyptians as a medicinal plant, coffee substitute, vegetable crop, and occasionally used for animal forage,” notes a 2013 scientific review led by Renée Street. This hardy plant became a staple around the globe, from South Africa, where the roots are “made into a tea for jaundice and used as a tonic for infants,” to Turkey, where “an ointment is made from the leaves for wound healing.”
In France, chicory became a commercial crop after Bonaparte encouraged citizens to drink local chicory root coffee instead of imported colonial coffee. As citizens embraced this local coffee alternative, demand skyrocketed. In his book Coffee and Chicory, 19th century author Peter Simmonds, “estimated demand for chicory to be a whopping 16 million pounds around 1860 in France.”
In Louisiana, New Orleans embraced chicory as a coffee replacement when “their port was blockaded during the Civil War,” notes a 2020 publication by Marie Viljoen. “The Great Depression and two world wars propelled chicory into the 20th century, where it came to represent deprivation for many.” Others embraced chicory so greatly it became preferable to its bitter, caffeinated counterpart.
Now, it seems chicory has come full circle, with recent accolades as a healthful addition to everyday life. With roots as an herbal medicine, and more people growing increasingly wary of the disadvantages of caffeine present in traditional coffee, chicory seems to easily fill a void between the two. Though the science behind the claims is relatively slim, early findings are promising.
Science of Chicory
Preliminary studies on chicory revealed it to be a “multipurpose plant that contains high amounts of proteins, carbohydrates and mineral elements,” notes Street. However, it appeared chicory contained a secret ingredient, inulin. “Inulin is a type of fiber…a carbohydrate made from a short chain of fructose molecules that your body doesn’t digest,” explains Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD.
What does this mean for our digestive system? Inulin is a prebiotic, an essential counterpart to probiotics. This means inulin, Streit clarifies, “feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut that play key roles in reducing inflammation, fighting harmful bacteria and improving mineral absorption.”
However, chicory may provide a plethora of health benefits beyond prebiotics. One study, published in Phytotherapy Research, “offered an encouraging starting point to describe the antithrombotic and anti-inflammatory effects of phenolic compounds found in chicory coffee.” Antithrombotic properties mean chicory could possibly reduce the formation of blood clots, pointing to its potential heart-healthy benefits.
The anti-inflammatory aspect can be beneficial to those experiencing pain associated with arthritis. This claim was supported by a study published in 2010, that “suggested that a proprietary bioactive extract of chicory root has a potential role in the management of osteoarthritis.” Managing arthritis pain with something as mild and natural as chicory root is incredibly promising. However, both studies conducted were pilot studies, “and therefore, considered to be insufficient so support a well-established use indication for chicory root,” notes Street.
However, with relatively mild side effects, chicory root may become an attractive option to try. Chicory can trigger reactions “in people who are allergic to ragweed pollen or sensitive to related plants, including chrysanthemums, marigolds, daises and other members of the same plant family,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., in a 2016 article. Additionally, “consuming [chicory] could theoretically be a problem for people with gallstones, but these are unlikely possibilities.” As with any supplement, consult with your doctor before incorporating chicory into your health and wellness plan.
Chicory Coffee and Beyond
So how does the prebiotic, antithrombotic chicory root become chicory coffee? The secret again, lies with inulin. “During the roasting process inulin in the root is converted to [an organic compound] which has a coffee-like aroma,” says Viljoen. Roasted and brewed, chicory root looks like coffee, smells like coffee, but does it taste like coffee? “In terms of taste, chicory is unique: strong, toasty, and nutty, with suggestions of burned-sugar,” noted Viljoen.
Chicory root coffee offers that strong, warm, slightly bitter drink in the morning, with additional benefits. Being naturally caffeine-free, chicory root coffee is an attractive option for those seeking a morning beverage without the rush. “When ground and brewed, [chicory] looks and tastes something like coffee, but is caffeine-free, less expensive and doesn’t contain the volatile oils,” says Dr. Weil.
In addition to a coffee replacement, chicory can be enjoyed in other ways. “The leaves of the flowering herb are sometimes sprinkled in salads to add a touch of bitterness,” notes Dr. Weil, “but they should not be confused with the Belgian endive or radicchio, which are types of salad chicory within the same family.” If you can find it in a specialty shop or grocery store, the whole chicory root, can be “boiled and eaten as a vegetable,” says Streit. It’s also common to see chicory used as a food additive. “Chicory root [is] processed for its inulin, which is used to increase fiber content or serve as a sugar or fat substitute due to its gelling properties and slightly sweet flavor, respectively,” notes Streit.
Locally, you grab a cup of New Orleans Chicory Coffee at Bon Temps Creole Café in San Luis Obispo. Situated near the train station on the outskirts of downtown SLO, Bon Temps serves New Orleans style breakfast and lunch. To savor a cup at home, try the Chicory Mocha mix from Solvang Spice Merchant. This mix features carob and vanilla to create a creamy mocha taste without the caffeine. Whichever way you choose to enjoy chicory, it’s sure to be a tasty, healthful addition to your day.
Chicory root was traditionally used in herbal medicinal remedies, and is making a comeback as a prebiotic and heart-healthy food. Chicory coffee is how it’s most commonly enjoyed and is available locally in the SLO county area. Ask your doctor before adding chicory to your wellness routine if you have ragweed or pollen allergies.
Note: This article was originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.