Chicory powder is obtained from the roots of a herbaceous plant that has been sought out for its medicinal properties since ancient times. It is added to coffee for financial reasons, but chicory also adds to the flavor of coffee, while reducing the overall caffeine content. Over time, people in some parts of the world have gotten used to the flavor of coffee blended with chicory and now prefer the blend instead of pure coffee.
When picking up your favorite coffee at the store, do you check to make sure whether it is 100% coffee or blended with something else? Many coffee grounds and instant coffee powders are blended with chicory. Roasted chicory powder, on its own, can also be brewed as a coffee-like drink.
So, what is chicory and why are we adding it to coffee?
What Is Chicory?
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a herbaceous plant with blue flowers belonging to the sunflower family Asteraceae. It is grown in many parts of the world, primarily in temperate and semi-arid regions. Leaves of other species of Cichorium are used as leafy greens added to salad and are known by the names radicchio and endive.
Chicory has been used since ancient times as a vegetable and in traditional medicine for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also believed to protect the liver, help with diabetes, and inhibit tumors. Chicory roots and leaves are used as vegetables and are valued as a rich source of fiber, micronutrients, and phytochemicals. The taproots are rich in inulin, a storage carbohydrate used as a nutraceutical.
Perhaps the most commonly known use of chicory today is as a substitute for coffee.
Chicory In Coffee
Roasted chicory roots are used as a caffeine-free coffee substitute because of their coffee-like flavor and pleasant taste after brewing. However, don’t expect the ‘caffeine kick,’ as there is no caffeine in chicory.
In order to process chicory for the brew, the roots are dried in a kiln, roasted, and then ground. This processing changes the biochemical composition of the chicory roots. The carbohydrate inulin is caramelized and converted to D-fructose. This caramelized D-fructose makes chicory brew dark brown, reduces the bitterness of the roots, and adds some sweetness.
Chicory is often mixed with coffee because of the similarity in flavor and color. Adding chicory lowers the total caffeine content, while giving it a woody and nutty flavor. An added advantage is that chicory is more soluble in water than coffee. Thus, you need to add less chicory than coffee to get the same dark brown color.
However, the primary reason why chicory is added to coffee has to do with keeping the margins high.
Chicory can be found both in instant coffee and pre-packaged artisanal ground coffee. So, if you want to avoid chicory, you will need to specifically check the ingredients in the coffee bag or opt for freshly ground beans.
Chicory Is Cheaper Than Coffee
The practice of adding chicory to coffee started in Europe and the US in the 18th century during times of economic crisis when there was a shortage of coffee supply. Towards the end of the 18th century, coffee importation into Germany was prohibited. During this time, people switched to drinking chicory brews or blended chicory with coffee to adapt to the limited supply of traditional java.
Coffee was introduced in the US by the French in the early 18th century. The port of New Orleans was a major importer of coffee. During the American Civil War, the port was blocked off and coffee imports suffered. That is when the people of New Orleans started mixing chicory with coffee. Chicory-blended coffee was widely consumed during the Civil War and Great Depression when supplies were limited and money was short.
Today, chicory-blended coffee is no longer common in Europe and the USA, except in some specific regions. Chicory brewed on its own, though, is used as a caffeine-free coffee.
New Orleans is one region where chicory blended coffee remains a tradition.
However, in other countries, such as in India, chicory-blended coffee is still common. Consumers of South Indian filter coffee prefer adding up to 20% chicory to their coffee because it gives filter coffee a different (read: better) flavor and a darker color.
When the price of coffee increases, coffee manufacturers are known to increase the proportion of chicory in their coffee from 30% to 49% to protect their margins.
Food regulation authorities limit the maximum permissible chicory content in coffee to 49% and require that such blended coffee not be labelled as ‘pure coffee’. Even so, not all coffee manufacturers are compliant.
Coffee grower associations in India are pushing back on the practice of adding chicory to coffee because it negatively affects their finances.
Chicory is added to coffee primarily to reduce manufacturing costs. However, when added in small proportions, it adds a nutty flavor to coffee. Since it is caffeine-free, it reduces the overall caffeine content of the coffee mix. Although chicory-blended coffee was first used in Europe, today Europeans prefer to have pure coffee or pure chicory decaf brews. Chicory blends continue to be popular in specific regions of the US (such as New Orleans), as well as in India.
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References (click to expand)
- Birsa, M. L., & Sarbu, L. G. (2023, March 8). Health Benefits of Key Constituents in Cichorium intybus L. Nutrients. MDPI AG.
- Puhlmann, M.-L., & de Vos, W. M. (2020, July). Back to the Roots: Revisiting the Use of the Fiber-Rich Cichorium intybus L. Taproots. Advances in Nutrition. Elsevier BV.
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