Inulin is a fiber derived from plants such as Jerusalem artichoke, agave, and chicory. It is found in countless processed foods because of its use as an emulsifier and texturizer. It is one of the key ingredients that help make ice cream healthier, since it functions not only as a fat replacement, but also as a prebiotic.
Inulin is a fiber, and therefore cannot be digested by humans. Nevertheless, it is fermented by probiotics that live in our guts. As a result, it is classified as a prebiotic, meaning it is essentially food for probiotics.
There are many health benefits associated with probiotics. These include everything from preventing infections to increasing calcium and magnesium absorption and reducing the risk of colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. Therefore, as a result of their health benefits, food scientists are adding probiotics to foods where they are not traditionally found, such as ice cream.
You’ve probably seen ads for ice cream with just five ingredients, a marketing tactic in response to the growing number of ingredients found in ice cream. However, many of the extra ingredients in ice cream are not necessarily bad for you. Foreign-sounding ingredients such as inulin can be healthier than the whole cream and sugar found in traditional ice cream.
Thus, combining both prebiotics and probiotics in ice cream results in the production of what food scientists call synbiotics — aptly named because of the synergistic health benefits that result from their combination. Ice cream is an ideal vehicle for synbiotics because the added inulin not only functions to maintain a proper texture in the absence of fat, but also feeds the probiotics. By feeding probiotics with prebiotics, you increase the probiotic’s ability to survive, which is essential for them to exert their positive health benefits.
In conclusion, inulin is not only a replacement for fat, but even more importantly, it is food for your food. Next time you’re indulging in low-fat probiotic ice cream, you can feel less guilty by keeping in mind that you’re probably consuming extracts from dandelions and wild yams, which can potentially keep you healthy.