The fiber floodgates have opened wide. Have you noticed? It’s hard to miss the onslaught of new products proudly boasting about fiber on the front of package labels.
The fiber fortification craze was the topic of my article in today’s Chicago Tribune.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of fiber. Research continues to document the multiple health benefits of a high-fiber diet. And most Americans get only about half the fiber they need (25 to 38 grams per day).
But this is not your mother’s roughage. The modern approach to fiber is a far cry from stewed prunes or a bowl of bran. The new high-fiber foods are spiked with isolated fibers — a type of purified powder that differs from the intact fiber that is naturally found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. These so-called functional fibers (often inulin, polydextrose or resistant maltodextrin ) do not have a grainy or gummy texture, so they allow manufacturers to add fiber into creamy yogurts, clear drinks and other previously fiber-free places.
For my article, I interviewed registered dietitian Joanne Slavin, a University of Minnesota researcher and one of the country’s leading experts on dietary fiber. Slavin has conducted tons of research on whole grains, but she told me the evidence on these isolated fibers is much skimpier: ”This concept might make sense, but it’s less researched. It’s an up and coming area.”
For example, some studies do suggest that inulin (often extracted from chicory root or Jerusalem artichoke) may boost beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract, but there is little or no evidence that this type of fiber helps lower cholesterol or aids regularity.
Other studies suggest eating a lot of fiber can help you control your weight. But Slavin said this research is linked to people eating high-fiber, lower calorie foods like fruits and vegetables. The weight loss benefits would not likely apply if you got most of your fiber from calorie-dense foods like chocolate snack bars, toaster pastries and ice cream with added fiber.
Even so, Slavin said these isolated fibers may help make it easier for people to get more fiber. “There are a lot more choices to get fiber, and that’s the upside,” she said. “If fiber doesn’t taste good, people won’t eat it.”
Still, she worries that these new fiber-fortified products may give people an “out.” She doesn’t want people to think “I’m off the hook” just because they snacked on a cookie or snack bar spiked with fiber.
It’s important to keep your focus on whole grains, fruits and vegetables. These foods naturally contain fiber along with other health-promoting nutrients. If you eat three fiber-fortified chocolate bars, you can meet your fiber goal, but it’s not the same as if you eat an abundance of “whole” foods that naturally contain fiber. So don’t think these new fiber snacks are an equal trade-off.
It’s also a lot easier to overdo it on fiber with some of these dessert-like options. Your health may not be in danger, but you could pay for it in digestive discomfort.
So bottom line, my message is this:
- Eat more fiber. That’s a good thing.
- Remember that not all fiber is created equal. Aim for a mixture of different types of fibers.
- Be picky about the company your fiber keeps. What else are you getting along with the fiber?
- Eat fiber-fortified “desserts” in moderation.
- Get a bulk of your fiber the old-fashioned way.