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Food & Dining

Inulin is not connected to insulin

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 02:45 AM

Q: What is inulin made from? I see it on ingredient lists, and sometimes they say it's from chicory roots. We don't eat chicory usually, so what is in it? It's in the high fiber foods, but it sounds like insulin.

A: Inulin is completely different from insulin. Starting with the broadest definition, inulin is a kind of dietary fiber.

All dietary fiber is made up of carbohydrates, but of a kind that we can't digest. Most of the commercially used inulin is extracted from chicory roots, but it is made naturally by lots of different plants, including bananas, agave and jicama. The kind of carbohydrate or sugar that makes inulin is mostly fructose, with a little glucose.

Inulin is higher fructose than high fructose corn syrup. But because of the way all those fructose sugars are tied together chemically, we cannot digest them, and it doesn't taste sweet. We don't have the right enzymes to cut them apart. And as long as they're tied together in a big long chain, we can't use them.

So instead of turning into sugar, getting into our blood and being used for energy, inulin has to keep moving through our intestines. Eventually it gets to our colon. The bacteria there have the right enzymes to break it down into individual fructose sugars. They grow and make plenty of gas in the process. That's why some people need to avoid foods with added inulin. But inulin never gets into our blood, and it does not raise our blood sugar. It just goes in one end and out the other of our gastrointestinal tract.

Q: I've seen some recipes for jelly made with Pomona pectin. Some of them don't call for any sugar at all, but they say to add some calcium water. How does this stuff work if there's no sugar, and what is calcium water? Is our local hard water enough to use instead?

A: Pomona pectin is an extra-purified type of pectin. Regular pectin or the other reduced sugar brands of pectin use sugar to link the strands of pectin together. Instead of sugar to link the pectin, Pomona requires calcium.

When you buy a box of Pomona, there will be two small packets in it. One is the pectin powder, the other is a calcium salt. You'll be instructed to dissolve the calcium in a certain amount of water. You keep the jar of calcium water, and every time you use the pectin, you'll add some of the water too. Without the right amount of calcium the pectin won't set.

And no, our hard water doesn't have enough to make it jell. If you look at the labels of some of the commercial "no sugar" jams and fruit preserves, you'll see in the ingredients that calcium is listed. They are using this type of pectin, too. These spreads have food coloring, extra gums and starch to thicken the spread, and preservatives to keep it from spoiling. Sugar is the preservative that holds the color and prevents spoilage, so a sugar-free spread has to use something else to preserve it.

One other thing to consider when you use the sugar-free or no-sugar-needed pectins is that without the sugar you will get a lot less final product. Instead of getting eight or 10 jars of jam, you might only get six or seven from the same amount of fruit. Without the sugar to take up space, there's less total jam. If you want to make sugar-free jam that looks bright and colorful, freeze the fruit now without sugar. Then make it one batch at a time as you use it. That way the fruit won't have time to darken.

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