Origin and nutrition
Radicchio belongs to the Asteraceae family, alongside dandelions and other chicory vegetables like Belgian endive.
Though it looks similar to red or purple cabbage, radicchio has a distinct bitter or spicy taste, which becomes less pungent if cooked.
There are several varieties, with Chioggia being most widely available. Other varieties are Treviso, which is sweeter and longer in shape, and Castelfranco, which is green with red speckles. The latter two may be difficult to find.
Much of the radicchio eaten around the world is imported from the Mediterranean region, but today, it is also grown commercially in other areas like California.
Like most leafy greens, radicchio contains few calories but offers several important vitamins and minerals.
Radicchio is a rich source of vitamin K. Compared with raw red cabbage, a serving of radicchio contains smaller amounts of most micronutrients, but in return, it has twice as much zinc and copper.
The historical medicinal uses of Cichorium intybus include wound healing as well as treating diarrhea, maintaining heart health, and managing blood sugar.
Today, research supports that radicchio offers potential health benefits, which appear to be largely due to powerful plant compounds.
High in antioxidants
Antioxidants are compounds in plant foods that protect your cells from free-radical damage. High levels of free radicals in your body may lead to oxidative stress and associated illnesses like cancer, heart disease, digestive conditions, and Alzheimer’s.
The distinctive color of radicchio comes from pigmented antioxidants called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins may benefit intestinal health and repair cell damage caused by oxidative stress.
One test-tube study found that the antioxidants in radicchio — especially from organic varieties — were particularly effective in attacking a common liver cancer cell called Hep-G2.
Another test-tube study observed that the antioxidant content and protective benefits of Treviso radicchio were significantly higher in extracts from the red parts of the leaves compared with extracts from the whole leaves.
What’s more, a third test-tube study discovered that antioxidants from red chicory protect against cell damage and prevent human red blood cells from being destroyed through hemolysis.
May benefit heart health
Plant foods like radicchio contain compounds that may lower your risk of heart disease.
One study showed that eating chicory reduced inflammation and heart damage in rats, while also preventing the buildup of plaque in the arteries, a known risk factor for heart disease.
A study in 47 healthy adults found that those who consumed 1.25 cups (300 ml) of a chicory root extract beverage daily for 4 weeks experienced a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure (the top number of a reading), compared with a placebo group.
Other research has indicated that radicchio contains polyphenolic compounds like luteolin that have antiplatelet activity, meaning they may improve circulation and prevent blood clots.
May have antiparasitic properties
Radicchio contains compounds that could help fight infections caused by parasites.
In one review of the antiparasitic properties of chicory, researchers suggested that radicchio may have future applications in treating gastrointestinal diseases in livestock in place of synthetic drugs that pose public health risks.
An animal study found chicory extract to have a significant antiparasitic effect on a type of roundworm infection common in pigs.
This was attributed to sesquiterpene lactones, which are potentially disease-fighting compounds unique to the Asteraceae plant family.
Although research is promising, more human studies are needed to determine how much radicchio is needed in the diet to achieve these effects and which infections it could benefit.
Other potential health benefits
The compounds in radicchio may offer other health benefits, but more research is needed to determine specific applications and doses:
- May promote strong bones. Radicchio contains a large amount of vitamin K, which regulates and promotes the calcium accumulation in your body and supports bone strength.
- May support blood sugar control. Adults who drank 1.25 cups (300 ml) of a chicory root extract beverage daily for 4 weeks had reduced levels of hemoglobin A1c, an indicator of long-term blood sugar levels.
- May improve digestive health. In the same study, participants reported an improvement in bowel regularity when consuming chicory root extract. This could be due to its inulin fiber content, which is important for gastrointestinal health.