All Out for Inulin!

Agave tequilana weber

Tequila owes its soul to inulin.

As such, perhaps many of us also owe our souls—and our marriages, friendships, and just-barely-made-it-out-of-college-alive stories to inulin as well.

Inulin is the substance present in agave sap that, after a bit of finagling, is fermented into alcohol and distilled into tequila. However, just like the starch found in barley, wheat, and rice—inulin has to be broken down into fermentable sugars before the magic of fermentation begins. This process is known as saccharification, which is just a fancy way to saying “breaking a complex carbohydrate down into its component sugars.”

Inulin is a type of complex carbohydrate known as a polysaccharide—meaning that it is a large, chain-like, sugar-based molecule. Starch, the well-known polysaccharide abundant in wheat, barley, and rice (as well as the foods produced from them) is a polysaccharide consisting of a many short chains of glucose molecules held together by molecular bonds. Grains (and other starchy foods such as potatoes) are typically soaked, ground, heated, and/or allowed to sprout in order to activate the enzymes that will split apart the molecular bonds and free the glucose molecules for fermentation. In humans, most people digest starch well—digestion breaks apart the molecular bonds and releases the glucose to be used as energy (if we get off the couch).

Common Chicory (cichorium intybus)

Inulin is a polysaccharide consisting of many short chains of fructose molecules held together by a unique type of molecular bond and bounded on each end by a glucose molecule. Inulin is used as a form of carbohydrate storage in plants that do not store or create starch. In plants, inulin is found mainly in the roots and underground stems (rhizomes). In humans, due to the nature of its molecular bonds, inulin is largely indigestible and is considered a type of soluble (water absorbing) dietary fiber.

In addition to agave, inulin is found in over 36,000 species of plants, including asparagus, artichokes, onions, bananas, and chicory. Inulin was first observed in 1804 by a German scientist named Valentin Rose. He noticed a “peculiar substance” in the roots and stems of the horse-heal herb—a relative of the sunflower plant that goes by the latin name of Inula heleniu.  After the substance was isolated, he named it “inulin” after the name Inula.

Inulin-rich agave hearts

In that wonderful circle-of-life process we know as tequila production, the heart of the blue agave plant is split open and slowly heated to release the sap.  But as we liquor store archaeologists know, what is really happening is that inside a long-chain polysaccharide known as inulin, the molecular bonds are slowly loosening their grip on the sugar molecules they once held so tight, soon to release a flood of fructose (and a little bit of glucose) into the world as simple, fermentable sugars ready to be transformed into tequila.

P.S. We do not advise anyone to rush to the grocery store and try to make liquor out of inulin-rich asparagus. But if you do, please let us know about it in the comments section (above).

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

 

 

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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