A common and sometimes misunderstood plant, chicory belongs to the sunflower and daisy family called Asteraceae, close cousins to lettuce and dandelions. There are broad- and curly-leafed versions known, sometimes known as endive (cichorium endive) and escarole. Chicory's outer leaves are green and can be bitter, with lighter green inner leaves that are mild to the taste.
Native to several parts of Europe where it's been commonly used in salads, witloof of chicory, a Dutch translation of "white leaf," denotes tightly curled leaves force-grown in darkness to encourage paler, more tender foliage. Radicchio, another relative, is the red-leafed variety. Transported to the Americas, chicory now grows so prolifically that it's a common sight along roadside ditches and in meadows, recognizable by its soft blue flower.
Chicory is also known as succory or coffeeweed, and there are reasons for each. Herbalists have valued chicory as a medicinal for a variety of ills for 1,000 years at least. It's been used on several continents as a liver tonic, to relieve upset stomachs, detoxify, calm the nerves, regulate the heartbeat, and treat osteoarthritis, gout, and diabetes.
Crushed chicory leaves have also been used as a poultice to treat skin inflammations and promote wound healing. That's why it's called succory – a form of "comfort." With a taste not unlike chocolate, sliced, dried, or ground chicory root is added to boiled water to make "coffee" (or more often added to coffee) but contains no caffeine.
Health Benefits of Chicory
While it's doubtful that one person would ingest an entire chicory root in one sitting, the nutritional profile above indicates what the benefits would be from a single cup. A two-ounce chunk of chicory root, for instance, provides about four percent of the daily value for fiber, which has a natural diuretic and laxative effect on the body.
Chicory is blessed with small amounts of nearly every essential vitamin. At seven percent of the daily value for each, selenium and manganese are two of the main ones. The former helps regulate thyroid hormones and the immune system, while the latter supports the formation of healthy bones, tissues, and sex hormones. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) maintains normal blood sugar levels and nerves. The potassium is essential for optimum kidney function, phosphorus metabolizes proteins, sugar, and calcium, and vitamin C fights infection.
Chicory roots contain oligosaccharide-enriched inulin, a prebiotic vital to the immune system that stimulates the growth and activity of probiotics, which in turn improve digestive health by preventing digestive flora imbalances to encourage healthy elimination. Oligosaccharides are present in only a few sources: breast milk, for one, as well as Jerusalem artichokes, onions, leeks, garlic, legumes, and bananas.
Having so many nutrients in the roots, it's no surprise that chicory leaves also possess healing properties, as well as add a mild-to-peppery flavor to salads. They're low in calories and a good source of fiber, potassium, and vitamins C and B9, very similar to the roots.
Chicory Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 3.5 ounces (100 grams), raw
|Calories from Fat
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie
Studies Done on Chicory
Using the premise that caffeine-free chicory coffee is a rich source of plant phenolics, researchers conducted a clinical study on 27 healthy volunteers who consumed 300 ml of chicory coffee every day for a week to see whether it might have some cardiovascular benefits. The scientists concluded that the study offered "an encouraging starting point to delineate the anti-thrombotic and anti-inflammatory effects of phenolic compounds found in chicory coffee."1
A placebo-controlled, double blind, dose-escalating trial was conducted to determine the safety and tolerability of a chicory root extract, shown to have anti-inflammatory properties in vitro, and assess the effects on the symptoms of osteoarthritis.
The results of the pilot study suggested that a "proprietary bioactive" extract of chicory root has a potential role in the management of osteoarthritis, merited further investigation.2
Chicory Healthy Recipes:
Chicory Salad with Walnuts and Parmesan
|½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
||1-2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
||3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
||½ tsp. Dijon mustard
|4 cups (or so) tender chicory leaves, shredded
||2 cups (or so) green leaf lettuce, shredded
||1 radicchio, chopped
||½ cup dried cranberries
|¼ cup shaved Parmesan
||Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- In a dry skillet, toast the nuts over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, mustard, salt and pepper, to taste.
- In a large bowl, toss the chicory, green leaf lettuce, radicchio and dried cranberries with the dressing, place on serving plates and top with the walnuts and shaved parmesan cheese.
Chicory Fun Facts
Chicory has an interesting history for supposed magical powers, including invisibility. Some held that it could be used to open a locked chest, but only on St. James's Day (July 25th). The method involved holding a gold knife and chicory leaves against the lock, but only in total silence – pain or death will follow if a word was spoken. This superstition came to America with early settlers who sometimes carried a piece of chicory for good luck.
Chicory has made a name for itself throughout history: Ancient Egyptians believed it could purify the blood and treat liver problems, and the Roman writer Pliny listed chicory greens as an essential part of his diet. The Latin term "securer," meaning "to run under," referred to the deep roots, said to have been used to make the first "coffee" by Napoleon's troops.
Chicory, sometimes known as endive, does belong to the Asteraceae family with sunflowers and dandelions, and has been used throughout Europe for millennia as both a food and a medicine. Although chicory contains no huge amounts of any one nutrient, it can claim small amounts of the whole spectrum of vitamins and minerals, the most prominent being vitamins C and A, selenium, manganese, fiber, potassium, and phosphorus, as well as oligosaccharide-enriched inulin.
While research on the beneficial phenolics of chicory was absent until fairly recently, research has revealed that it does contain anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular health benefits. It remains one of the many plant-based foods still under investigation for additional virtues.