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INULIN: FRIEND OR FOE?
by Patty Donovan
Inulin seems to be the latest health food craze. In this article, I will present both sides of the inulin story. Is it for everybody? Most certainly not, but very few things are. A personal experience drove me to research inulin. This past May, when I first started eating what I call real food (nothing processed), I started buying an organic plain yogurt to replace the yogurt sweetened with Splenda that I had been eating. After less than 2 weeks of eating this yogurt, I ended up in the emergency room with a partial bowel obstruction. Can I prove this was the result of inulin? No, of course not, but it was the only thing I was eating that I had never eaten before AND upon discontinuing this yogurt, my symptoms resolved within a few days. I have been drinking milk kefir, water kefir, Kombucha Tea and lacto-fermented vegetables for several months now. I know I have dramatically improved my intestinal flora and have a hunch that I could now safely consume products containing inulin. The question remains: Do I want to?
First of all, what is inulin? Inulin is a carbohydrate belonging to a class of compounds known as fructans and is closely related to fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS). Although they aren’t the same, you will often find them used interchangeably. These are all starches (carbohydrates), just varying in structure. Since inulin is not absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, it is considered to be a fiber. It is a soluble fiber as opposed to cellulose which is insoluble. Inulin/FOS also goes by names such as Neosugar, Alant Starch, Atlanta Starch, Alantin, Dahlin, Helenin, and Diabetic Sugar. It also has a slightly sweet taste and is very low on the glycemic index making it suitable for diabetics. There are even some claims it can be used as a sugar substitute.
It is found naturally mostly in root vegetables. Tiny amounts are found in onions and garlic, while much larger amounts are found in starchy roots such as chicory root and Jerusalem artichokes (sun chokes), although inulin content in these vegetables can vary according to season and harvest time. Storage also affects the differing carbohydrate levels – sometimes they are high in inulin and sometimes they don’t contain any. Because inulin isn't digested in the upper gastrointestinal tract, it reaches the large intestine intact where it is fermented by your native bacteria. Currently, inulin is promoted primarily as a pre-biotic and as a fiber supplement. Prebiotics are defined as: Non-digestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, and thus improve host health.
The good properties of inulin:
Inulin is being touted as a pre-biotic and showing up in all kinds of foods, especially in dairy. Because it transits to the large intestine almost unchanged, inulin essentially serves as fertilizer for the bacteria in your colon. Certain lactobacillus species of bacteria have been shown to preferentially ferment inulin/FOS, especially the Bifidus species. For this reason, it is being promoted as a supplement to feed the good bacteria in our guts. Bifidobacteria digest inulin to produce short chain fatty-acids, such as acetic, propionic, and butyric acids. The first two fatty acids can be used by the liver for energy production, while butyric acid has been shown to have cancer-preventing properties within the intestine. Recent animal research also shows that inulin prevents precancerous changes in the colon.
The feeding of inulin/FOS to human volunteers alters the gut flora composition in favor of one of the good guys, bifidobacteria. More studies in people need to be done to determine the value of prebiotics. It may be possible to prevent various gastrointestinal complaints through the selectively targeting specific gut bacteria. Other studies indicate that lactobacillus, bifidobacteria and other non-pathogenic bacteria create environments in which pathogenic bacteria are inhibited by modifying pH, producing surfactants that keep pathogens from binding to the lining of the gut and making compounds that are toxic to the undesired bacteria.
Another very interesting study that shows a benefit of ingesting inulin was done by Institute of Human Nutrition and Food Science, at the University of Kiel, Germany. In hamsters, inulin was able to lower VLDL, but not LDL and HDL, although the mechanism of action wasn’t fully understood. Other studies show that nondigestible oligosaccharides can increase the absorption of several minerals (calcium, magnesium, in some cases phosphorus) and trace elements (mainly copper, iron, zinc).
Ok, at this point you may be thinking great . . . what’s the problem?
The bad properties of inulin:
Manufacturers claim that inulin/FOS specifically feeds only good bacteria. Unfortunately, this isn't reality. A good example is Klebsiella. Recent studies have shown that inulin/FOS encourages the growth of Klebsiella, a bacteria implicated in Ankylosing Spondylitis and in increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut). Although present in the colon of most people, it is held in check by beneficial bacteria and is harmless WITHIN the colon. Once it gets to other areas of the body, Klebsiella becomes a major cause of infection (and sometimes death), causing serious infections in the urinary tract, pneumonia and in wounds. Inulin/FOS may indeed promote the growth of lactobacillus bacteria, but what other potentially harmful bacteria are being fed at the same time? Furthermore, many different species of yeast are able to utilize inulin/FOS for energy including Candida Albicans.
These same manufacturers also claim that because inulin is found naturally it must be fine. Here’s a good example of why this reasoning is flawed. Sucrose (table sugar) is naturally found in beets, sugar cane, oranges, and other plants. Humans removed this naturally occurring substance from a whole food source and refined it into a chemical. Sucrose is probably one of the most unhealthy food additives in human history. Another example, even worse than sucrose, is the refining of corn into High Fructose Corn Syrup which is now known to cause heart disease among many other problems. We should learn from our experiences with these and apply them to inulin/FOS. Instead of adding refined, super concentrated inulin/FOS to your food, eat the foods that naturally contain inulin/FOS.
The body is genetically adapted to certain foods and as we continue to mess with our food chain, our health suffers the consequences. Of the nutritional fibers, cellulose was the most likely to be included in a traditional hunter-gatherer diet. Cellulose is an insoluble fiber that is slowly fermented by the microbial population in the human colon. Inulin/FOS is a soluble fiber that is quickly and easily fermented. "The difference between cellulose (a food we are adapted to) and inulin/FOS (a food we are not adapted to in large quantities) is like the difference between a slow burning ember and a raging fire. Who likes playing with fire?" (http://www.healingcrow.com/ferfun/conspiracy/conspiracy.html) .
There has been one documented case of anaphylactic reaction to inulin. As it permeates the food supply, there will likely be more and more reports of allergy and/or intolerance to inulin/FOS. Symptoms of intolerance usually include flatulence, bloating, cramps, abdominal pain, diarrhea and rarely, constipation. Basically, the worse the natural population of bacteria and yeasts in your colon, the worse the symptoms of intolerance. Some studies in people not known to regularly ingest inulin have shown that people’s reactions vary greatly. It has been determined that people fall into one of three categories regarding sensitivity to inulin: 1) nonsensitive persons can consume 30 g/d (grams per day) or more of the compound with little or no symptoms as described 2) sensitive persons can consume 10 g/d of the compound without discomfort but might experience undesirable reactions with doses of 20 g/d; 3) very sensitive persons can experience symptoms of intolerance at doses as small as of 10 g/d. Unfortunately, these studies did not include analysis of the flora initially present in the colon.
Undoubtedly, inulin and FOS have many beneficial actions. The disadvantage seems to be in taking inulin/FOS when the colon is filled with “bad” bacteria and yeast (dysbiosis) because then it may cause major problems. This may be helped by taking a probiotic along with inulin/FOS. Another very strong caveat is past history with taking a single ingredient out of a whole food and refining it. Over and over this has been shown to be deleterious to our health. At this time, I think the verdict is still out on these substances. If you think inulin may be helpful to you, ingest it in the form of a whole food; by eating chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes or other foods naturally high in this substance. All ingredients present in whole foods work harmoniously with each other. Just as refining a single ingredient in an herb and calling it “medicine” often results in a deadly poison, so too does refining a single ingredient out of whole food often turns that ingredient into a toxic substance.
Reddy BS, Hamid R, Rao CV Effect of dietary oligofructose and inulin on colonic preneoplastic aberrant crypt foci inhibition. Carcinogenesis 1997 Jul;18(7):1371-1374
Dietary modulation of the human gut microflora using the prebiotics oligofructose and inulin.
J Nutr 1999 Jul;129(7 Suppl):1438S-41S
About the author
Patty is a recent convert to health through "whole foods" nutrition and alternative medicine. In April 2007, she was told to go back on morphine, get in a wheelchair and "learn to live with it". Since that time, she has spent countless hours researching nutrtion and alternative health. She comes to News Target with a unique perspective in this area after working in pharmacy and teaching pharmacology for 15 years, followed by 15 years as an RN. In less than 6 months of following this lifestyle, she has lost 50lbs, stopped over 20 prescription drugs and no longer has several "diseases".