Author – Katie Chriest
If you’ve sipped chicory coffee in New Orleans or savored Belgian endive in New York, you’ve encountered the versatile Cichorium intybus, or chicory. This herbaceous perennial, native to Europe and southwestern Asia, has been used in numerous ways for millennia. Today, chicory’s growing popularity is largely due to its potential health benefits.
Fiber is widely celebrated as a digestive health darling. But in general, Americans don’t get enough fiber in our diets, thus increasing our risk for everything from excess weight to heart disease.
No wonder we’re seeing so many products on the market today with added fiber. And increasingly, one source of that fiber is inulin from chicory root.
Most inulin currently being incorporated into food in the States arrives from Europe. Pure inulin is extracted from the chicory root and then sold here either as a dry powder or a liquid. Because it also imparts a bit of sweetness and can improve mouthfeel, you may find it in energy bars, low-fat or gluten-free breads, yogurts, and myriad foods with added fiber.
“Quite a few products are using it now, and it’s being imported from the Netherlands, Belgium and France, primarily,” explains Bob Wilson, emeritus professor and weed management specialist with Nebraska’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center. Here, Nebraska has been a key state, he adds, estimating that chicory is being grown on about 300 acres there.
Wilson has worked with Blue Prairie Brands, a promising new company that is perfecting its chicory root flour. He says the company sees benefit from the standpoint that they can make chicory root into a flour with minimal processing, which means that it’s ideal as all-natural source of fiber or sweetness.
Wilson also mentions U.S. Chicory, making chicory available to be roasted and used as a coffee additive—mostly sent to Louisiana for chicory coffee blends. Additionally, the company’s product is used as a nutrition-boosting ingredient in pet foods.
“It seems to help digestion and research suggests it also helps to support good bacteria in the animal’s stomach,” he says.
Meanwhile, more research is underway regarding additional health benefits for humans. Preliminary studies suggest that chicory’s fiber content could stimulate feelings of fullness in people, and that it therefore could be beneficial for weight loss.
And then there’s the chicory that finds its way to salad plates.
“On the east and west coasts, you have people growing Belgian endive, which is the same genus and species as the chicory we’re growing around here,” Wilson says. “They harvest the root, freeze it, then thaw it out and it sends up a shoot that’s used in salads.”
Of course, this hardy plant is also commonly seen beautifying roadsides throughout the U.S., demonstrating its tolerance for imperfect soils. Chicory’s lovely blue flower is open in the morning and closed come afternoon. Wilson quips that you could almost tell time with it—though it’s not about to give a precision timepiece a run for its money.
As a cultivated crop, chicory also tolerates—even prefers—chilly temperatures.
“It grows well where you grow sugar beets,” Wilson explains. “It acts as a biannual or a short-lived perennial, but most of the production is done by planting it in the spring and harvesting it in the fall. What we’ve seen is that the plant seems to like a cool evening. In Nebraska, even during the hot part of the summer, we still get down into the 60s at night, and as we get into September and cooler temperatures, the root almost doubles in mass every 30-40 days. It’s storing up energy, because it thinks it’s going to need it to overwinter—but it never gets a chance to.”
If left to its own devices, chicory will return as a volunteer the next year. But one thing this easygoing plant doesn’t tolerate well is weeds, which are its greatest threat to productive yields. And as a specialty crop grown on minimal acreage in the U.S., it hasn’t had many herbicides approved for use in its cultivation—just imazamox, trifluralin and triflusulfuron. But with the registration of S-metolachlor (Dual Magnum herbicide), growers in the States can benefit from the more comprehensive weed control already available to those in Europe.
“Chicory is a very slow-growing plant early in the season,” Wilson explains. “It has a very small seedling, and it takes a good month for you to be able to look from the road and see a row down the field.”
Needless to say, chicory isn’t very competitive with weeds.
“The use of herbicides is very important,” Wilson summarizes. “Where S-metolachlor fits is that you can put that on after the crop is up and has two true leaves, giving you some residual weed control. Basis Blend doesn’t have a lot of residual, Treflan has residual but it’s primarily good for grassy weeds, whereas S-metolachlor is also for grassy weeds but it has a few more broadleaf weeds that it can control.”
“S-metolachlor will round out the weed control needs for the commodity,” agrees Dan Kunkel, IR-4’s senior associate director. Although chicory is an “ultra-minor” commodity, IR-4 still went through the process of generating data and getting S-metolachlor and prior herbicides registered, given the number of requests to support domestic production of this rising niche crop.
“Because of IR-4, this crop is being grown,” Wilson states. “If IR-4 hadn’t worked with us to develop a residue package for Basis Blend and also for Raptor, we wouldn’t be growing chicory now. The lack weed control would just not allow it to happen. So we’re very appreciative of what IR-4 has done for us. It’s been very beneficial.”
Katie Chriest is a freelance technical writer in Erie, Pennsylvania; firstname.lastname@example.org.