Our bodies require constant maintenance to respond to the ever changing dynamics our lives present to them. Broadly speaking, our bodies respond to these changing dynamics, these stressors, by producing signals in the form of hormones and neurotransmitters which encourage corresponding behaviors. Positive feedback, where a behavior is rewarded by the release of a hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel good or happy, and negative feedback, when the opposite happens, are the simplest examples of the behavioral recruitment campaigns our bodies are always waging.
Most bodily states, impulses, and needs are regulated by many factors which may be at odds with one another, some encouraging behaviors that others are discouraging. This can lead to a state of dysregulation wherein maladaptive behaviors are exhibited.
Satiety and its counterpart, hunger, have become increasingly dysregulated leading to widespread obesity and type II diabetes throughout the developed world. Our modern world provides us too few reasons to move, too little sunlight and sleep, and too much energy dense food. Moving more and getting more sunlight and sleep is always good, but changing the way we eat is an easier step to take for most. Fortunately for all of us, there are many benefits to eating less energy dense food and there are ingredients that make preparing foods of more moderate energy density much simpler.
Sugar out, fiber in
Most food products have an abundance of sugar in them. Sugar, in its various forms, provides many things to food products, to food producers, to consumers, and to our bodies. To consumers, sugar provides sweetness, which our bodies reward us for in the form of happy hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin. Our bodies reward us when we eat sweet foods precisely because they are energy dense; energy dense foods have always provided our bodies energy in the form of calories, which we need to survive and to be able to respond adequately to future stressors. The problem, of course, is that we have access to a far greater quantity of energy dense foods at a much greater frequency than our bodies ever expected us to. As a result, we eat more than we should. Eating simple carbohydrates, such as sugars and flour, is additionally problematic and also triggers sharp increases in our blood glucose concentration. This results in a correspondingly sharp increase in our insulin levels, which is followed by a rapid drop in blood sugar, which causes the production and release of hormones which make us feel hungry.
The good news is that fiber, specifically inulin and inulin-type fructans, is able to counteract all of these issues. As noted above, sugar provides many things to food products. In addition to sweetening foods, sugar also binds water which changes how the food feels in the mouth, the way flavors are released during chewing, how a product freezes and thaws, and even how stable a product is. Fibers like inulin can replicate both the sweetening and the water binding functions of sugar, while drastically reducing the blood glucose (glycemic) response in the short term, and even diminishing excessive blood glucose responses in the future via the effects the fibers have on our gut microbiota.
Fiber, prebiotics, and calories
Inulin and fibers like it are non-digestible carbohydrates. As the name implies, they are not digested by the human body in the same way that most carbohydrates are; instead, they pass through the stomach and into the colon intact where they are utilized by specific groups of bacteria for their growth and proliferation. In this way, ingestion of inulin selects for certain types of bacteria; these bacterial groups are strongly correlated with a wide variety of beneficial health effects. This well-studied selective utilization by beneficial microorganisms bolsters inulin’s status as the classic example of a prebiotic fiber.
For the purposes of food labelling, inulin and inulin-type fructans are given a caloric value of 2 kcal/g, as opposed to the 4 kcal/g caloric value of proteins and carbohydrates or the 9 kcal/g caloric value of fat. This caloric value for inulin takes into account the energy our bodies receives from the food following fermentation by gut microbiota. Interestingly, this energy is received by the cells which line the inside of the gut and is thereby not circulated into the rest of the body, so these calories do not contribute to energy storage in the form of body fat.
Formulating calories out
Being able to replicate the functionalities of sugar as both a sweetener and as an water binder makes replacing sugar with chicory root fiber, i.e. inulin and oligofructose, extremely simple. For the vast majority of applications, sugar can be replaced 1:1 with inulin replicating the water binding and flavor enhancement functionalities completely and supplying as much as 60% of the sweetness of sugar, depending upon the inulin or oligofructose used. As a result, replacing sugar with inulin is an excellent solution for reducing the energy density and associated glycemic response of a food product.
Additionally, chicory root fiber is also able to replace fat in food products. At 9 kcal/g fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient, so replacing it with inulin reduces calories even more than an equivalent replacement of sugar does. Functionally, fully hydrated native and long chain inulin produces lattice-like networks that provide fat reduced foods with a similar structure to full fat standards while also mimicking the feeling of fat in the mouth. Oftentimes, formulators find that replacing 20-50% of the fat in a formulation with inulin results in very similar sensory properties.
Taken together, the functions that chicory root fiber provides to food products and to our bodies makes it a must-have in any formulators toolkit and an ingredient whose momentum suggests history will look very favorably on companies that embrace it.