In Australia psyllium was a pretty standard ingredient in my kitchen that I encouraged my clients to try. It’s available to buy easily in health food shops and mainstream supermarkets. Here in the UK however is a completely different story. Most dietitians I’ve spoken with have never heard of psyllium, let alone know what it is, what it does, how it is beneficial to your health and who can be using it.
What is psyllium?
Also known as isobgol or ispaghula, psyllium is a native Indian plant rich in soluble fibre (plus some insoluble fibre) that when combined with water or fluid forms a gel. It is naturally gluten free so safe for people with coeliac disease to eat and is useful for gluten-free baking.
What does psyllium do?
There are a number of health benefits of psyllium. Each teaspoon provides 4g of fibre and only 15kcal meaning that a small amount can easily help bump up your fibre intake to help you get towards recommended (minimum) amounts of 24g per day. As such it can help with keeping bowels regular and is used in some products as a natural, gentle laxative.
There is a good level of evidence for 7-10g psyllium to reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) by approximately 7% in people with normal and high cholesterol levels with little impact on HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). There is a dose-dependent response meaning that the more psyllium have the more impact it will have on your cholesterol levels, however consuming more than 10g per day doesn’t give any additional benefits.
Psyllium can be used as a health claim in the US for reduced risk of coronary heart disease if one serve contains 7g.
Speaking of cholesterol, this is my (overly simplistic) trick for remembering the good and ‘bad’ types of cholesterol:
HDL cholesterol is Healthy so you want it to be Higher
LDL cholesterol is ‘bad’ so you want it Lower.
Where can I buy psyllium?
You can find psyllium capsules in some health food shops but the husks are a bit more elusive. I’ve found psyllium husks online, in multicultural food shops and Independent health food shops.
How much psyllium husk should you take?
To achieve the recommended doses of psyllium approximately 2 – 3 teaspoons need to be consumed on a daily basis.
Side effects of psyllium
The US FDA requires any health claims made for psyllium products to contain a warning that consumption of psyllium must be made with adequate fluid as it poses a choking hazard if taken dry on its own. As it does work as a gentle laxative, some people experience gastrointestinal effects such as bloating or diarrhoea after taking psyllium but this can often be due to a sudden increase in fibre consumption. As with any fibre intake it is best to increase the amount taken slowly to allow your gut to become accustomed.
How do you take psyllium?
Your lifestyle and reasoning for using psyllium will influence how much and how often you include psyllium in your diet. Psyllium can be mixed into water, juice or added into foods like these energy bars I recently made. Some people want to use it as a natural laxative and prefer to take it as a pre-made drink such as Metamucil. I tend to incorporate it into foods that I am normally eating to bump up the fibre intake. A standard way I have always used psyllium (since my undergrad uni days) is to put a teaspoon or two on top of natural yoghurt and frozen berries (pictured below). As the berries defrost and form a berry juice the psyllium soaks it up and makes a berry jelly that mixes in well with the natural yoghurt and tastes great.
Gluten-free baking with psyllium
Because each teaspoon contains 4g of fibre, psyllium is useful for gluten-free baking to increase the fibre content – especially as fibre is known to be low in many gluten-free foods. Adding psyllium to gluten-free bread dough can improve the texture and help it to rise, acting as a replacement (of sorts) for gluten. Psyllium content of around 5% is reportedly the best. This equates to approximately:
- 3 teaspoons psyllium husk to 1 1/4 cups of flour or
- 2 1/2 teaspoons psyllium husk per 1 cup flour.
Now that you know about it I hope you can search it out and find some psyllium near you!
- Psyllium as a substitute for gluten in bread (2009) Journal of the American Dietetic Association http://fs.unb.br/nutricao/laboratorios/tecdie/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Psyllium-as-a-Substitute-for-Gluten-in-Bread.pdf