American food manufacturers know that health-conscious, savvy consumers want more fiber. Consequently, they’re adding fiber to just about anything that comes in a container. This includes ice cream, shakes, yogurt, juice, snack bars, cookies, cakes, pasta, brownies, drinks, diet supplements and even gummy candy. The higher the fiber grams the better! A good per serving fiber target is 2.5 grams. A great one is 5.0 grams or higher.
High fiber counts are sometimes jokingly referred to as high fibber rather than as high fiber. That’s because it’s accomplished by “magically” adding a variety of powder-like or gelatinous substances into packaged food recipes. The substances might be any combination of chemically-treated, synthetically created, and/or pulverized natural sources of fiber. All of them conform, 100%, to the FDA definition of fiber, which is a plant-based substance that’s not digestible or that’s resistant to digestion.
Fifty years ago, before the marriage of high technology and agriculture, most people thought about fiber as “roughage,” the woody, undigestible part of a plant that’s found in veggies, fruits, legumes and whole grains. In addition to providing no-calorie bulk, roughage also provides antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
Strong scientific evidence links fiber to almost every kind of health benefit. It’s been proven to lower the risk of heart disease by increasing HDL (the healthy cholesterol) and lowering LDL (the lousy cholesterol). It can prevent or help treat type 2 diabetes by slowing digestion, diffusing high blood sugar and pre-empting insulin resistance. It can lower blood pressure. It can prevent certain cancers, especially colon cancer. It can prevent constipation and hemorrhoids. It can prevent overweight and obesity by suppressing hunger and creating a feeling of fullness in the stomach. The list of advantages goes on. You get the gist.
That said, most Americans don’t eat enough fiber to reap these benefits. The recommended daily target for women is 25 grams of fiber, but the typical gal only eats around 13-14 grams. The recommended daily target for men is 38 grams of fiber, but the typical guy only eats around 15-17 grams. Herein lies the sales pitch for food manufacturers who make it quick, cheap and easy to amp-up daily fiber consumption.
Herein also lies the controversy for consumers. Does a processed fiber substance actually perform or count the same way that whole, unprocessed roughage works? In many cases bulk is reduced and antioxidant, vitamin and phytochemical properties are eliminated or dramatically changed. Do you get the same protections offered by “real” unaltered foods? All we know with any certainty is that processed foods never end up being good for us. Fiber, however, is not typically recognized as a food that might be processed. Rather, all fiber is perceived as good and desirable.
A handful of studies are beginning to hint at major differences between processed fibers and “real” ones. Contrary to claims, many processed fiber products, for example, do not result in a feeling of fullness after eating them. Consequently, they do not help with hunger control or weight management. Also, depending on the type and amount of processed fiber ingested, results are mixed regarding the promise of better digestion and regularity. And there’s a growing sense that more grams of processed fiber might be needed to equal the effect of unprocessed fibers.
Clearly, more research is needed. In the meantime, education is your best tool for assessing fiber statements made on product labels and in commercials. Keep in mind that nutrition labels only provide a total fiber count. They do not distinguish between whole and processed fibers or between real and chemically-altered ones. The most helpful skill is to learn how to distinguish and identify the types of fibers that are in your packaged foods and drinks. The one and only place to find this information is in the ingredients list. The ingredients list is likely to be the smallest print on the package and is sometimes hidden under a flap.
Here’s a brief overview of common ingredients that might be included are technically counted as fiber:
Pulverized natural fibers are derived from a wide range of roughage sources including psyllium, flax, rice, oats, fruits, wheat flour, bran, seeds and others. These pulverized substances can have any consistency, ranging from a flour-like powder to something that’s more grainy or chunky.
Modified starch is a white powder derived from starchy vegetables, most commonly corn, but can also be potato, rice, barley or other sources. Modified starch is either physically, enzymatically or chemically treated to become a resistant starch (which makes it undigestible). Starch increases the viscosity of food and improves stability due to variations in temperature.
Inulin (not insulin) and Oligiofructose are creamy white gel-like substances. They’re grouped together because they have a similar chemical structure dominated by fructose molecules. Inulin is typically derived from chicory roots. Inulin and Oligiofructose are not digested in the stomach (the rationale for labeling them as fibers) and instead go straight to the colon where bacterial growth is promoted. Because of the bacterial action, these substances are also referred to as pro-biotic. Inulin is often found in dairy products.
Polydextrose is an odorless white powder synthetically made by connecting chains of glucose (dextrose) with chemical bonds that are resistant to digestive enzymes. (Again, this is the reason for calling it a fiber.) Polydextrose is also a lower calorie replacement for sugar and/or fat.
Vegetable gums are undigestible powders. They include guar gum and acacia gum.
Another choice is to simply eat your veggies. Veggies are always available as unprocessed and whole products. Check below for the big dose of fiber you get from just one-half-cup of roughage, the old-fashioned but still relevant and useful term for fiber that hasn’t been altered by a chemical or a machine.
Fruits: 1.1 grams
Dark green veggies: 6.4 grams
Orange veggies: 2.1 grams
Legumes: 8.0 grams
Starchy veggies: 1.7 grams
Other veggies: 1.1 grams
Whole grains: (1 ounce) 2.4 grams