Common chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a bushy perennial herb with blue, lavender, or occasionally white flowers. It grows as a wild plant on roadsides in its native Europe, and in North America, where it has become naturalized. Common chicory is also known as blue sailors, succory, and coffeeweed. It is also called cornflower, although that name is more properly applied to Centaurea cyanus. The cultivated forms are grown for their leaves (var. foliosum), or for the roots (var. sativum), which are baked, ground, and used as a coffee substitute and additive. Common names for varieties of var. foliosum include endive, radicchio, Belgian endive, French endive, red endive, sugarloaf or witloof.
Chicory is also the common name in the US (and in France) for curly endive (Cichorium endivia). There is considerable confusion between Cichorium endivia and Cichorium intybus.
Chicory may be grown for its leaves, eaten raw as a salad. It is generally divided into three types of which there are many varieties:
Although leaf chicory is often called "endive", true endive (Cichorium endivia) is a different species in the genus.
Around 1970 it was found that the root contains up to 20% inulin, a polysaccharide similar to starch. Since then, new strains have been created, giving root chicory an inulin content comparable to that of sugar beet (around 600 dt/ha). Inulin is mainly found in the plant family Asteraceae as a storage carbohydrate (for example Jerusalem artichoke, dahlia etc.). It is used as a sweetener in the food industry (with a sweetening power 30% higher than that of sucrose) and is sometimes added to yogurts as a prebiotic. Inulin can be converted to fructose and glucose through hydrolysis. Inulin is also gaining popularity as a source of soluble dietary fibre.
Some beer brewers use roasted chicory to add flavor to their stouts.
Chicory (especially the flower) was used as a treatment in Germany, and is recorded in many books as an ancient German treatment for everyday ailments. It is variously used as a tonic and appetite stimulant, and as a treatment for gallstones, gastro-enteritis, sinus problems and cuts and bruises. (Howard M. 1987)
According to traditional folklore, long-term use of chicory as a coffee substitute may damage human retinal tissue, with dimming of vision over time and other long term effects. Modern scientific literature contains little or no evidence to support or refute this claim. Ophthalmologists at the University of Minnesota say that a condition that causes permanent vision loss has been diagnosed in a small group of men who have ingested large amounts of chicory. The condition, nonarteritic ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION), described as "stroke of the eye," occurs when blood flow is cut off to the optic nerve, which injures the nerve and results in permanent vision loss. These cases were published in the March 2005 issue of the Journal of Neuro-ophthalmology.
Root chicory contains volatile oils similar to those found in plants in the related genus Tanacetum which includes Tansy, and is likewise effective at eliminating intestinal worms. All parts of the plant contain these volatile oils, with the majority of the toxic components concentrated in the plant's root.
Chicory is well known for its toxicity to internal parasites. Studies indicate that ingestion of chicory by farm animals results in reduction of worm burdens, which has prompted its widespread use as a forage supplement. There are only a few major companies active in research, development, and production of chicory varieties and selections. Most of them are in New Zealand.
The chicory plant is one of the earliest cited in recorded literature. Horace mentions it in reference to his own diet, which he describes as very simple: "Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea, me malvae" ("As for me, olives, endives, and mallows provide sustenance"). Lord Monboddo describes the plant in 1779 as the "chicoree", which the French cultivate as a pot herb. In the Napoleonic Era in France, chicory frequently appeared as either an adulterant in coffee or a coffee substitute; this practice also became common in the United States and the United Kingdom, e.g., in England during the Second World War and in Camp Coffee, a coffee and chicory essence which has been on sale since 1885.
In the United States chicory root has long been used as a substitute for coffee in prisons.
Chicory is an ingredient in typical Roman recipes, generally fried with garlic and red pepper, with its bitter and spicy taste, often together with meat or potatoes. FAO reports that in 2005, China and the USA were the top producers of lettuce and chicory.