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Sunchokes, Immunity, and the mysterious Inulin

Sunchokes are a delicious member of the daisy family, which includes many of the superstars of the botanical world: dandelion, burdock, artichoke, arnica, echinacea, chicory, and elecampane to name a few. Something all of these plants have in common is that their roots contain a compound called inulin. Inulin is a polysaccharide that acts as a type of soluble fiber. Fibers do not get broken down by our normal digestive process in the small intestine, so it remains intact as it is either absorbed or sent to the large intestine.

When inulin arrives in the large intestine, it can function in a manner similar to other prebiotics such as fructooligosaccharides. It serves as food to the healthy bacteria living in the digestive tract and thereby can help to grow and develop a healthy balance of flora. The large intestine is our largest immune organ: 70% of the immune tissue of the body resides here. Healthy flora help to protect this immune tissue, boost our natural defenses against infection, and prevent inappropriate inflammation in the digestive tract and throughout the body.

The problem with eating foods high in inulin is directly related to its benefits. When those happy bacteria consume it and grow, they create waste products in the form of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. This can cause gas, bloating and general discomfort in the belly for some people. Processed foods that contain isolated inulin (which also can be called chicory on a label) do seem to cause problems for many people, so check your labels. That said, many traditional diets have contained high levels of inulin-containing foods and it is well tolerated by many people. Whole foods, such as sunchokes, can cause fewer gassy issues for people so it may be worth the experiment to give your flora a healthy snack!