Fiber sells food products. Ca-ching! Every American food manufacturer knows that most shoppers are educated and health-savvy. On demand they’ve delivered the easy, tasty and fiber-rich products desired. Grocery store shelves are loaded with packaged foods and drinks that have artificially-created fiber added to their product recipes.
Unfortunately, nutritional labels do not differentiate between naturally-occurring fibers and artificial or fake ones. Food manufacturers have the legal ability to manipulate nutritional fiber statistics so that they appear real and appealing. Junk foods can be magically presented as healthy food choice options. Herein lies the challenge for consumers. Until recently, it’s been assumed that fiber is fiber, and it’s all good, but maybe it isn’t.
Unnatural fiber is ubiquitously infused into any food or drink that comes in a container: ice cream, shakes, yogurt, juice, health food bars, cookies, cakes, pasta, brownies, drinks and even gummy candy. Natural fiber, on the other hand, is only found in fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains.
A “healthy” portion of fiber is 2.5-3.0 grams per serving. A “high” portion of fiber is 5.0 grams or more per serving. The target for women is a total of 25 grams per day, but women typically eat 13-14 grams. The target for men is a total of 38 grams per day, but men typically eat 15-17 grams. American diets are clearly fiber deficient. This is the rationale for the strong selling pitch and the basic underlying problem to be solved. But why is fiber deficiency a problem?
There’s strong scientific evidence that eating fiber-rich foods can lower the risk of heart disease. It can increase HDL cholesterol (the healthy cholesterol) and lower LDL cholesterol (the lousy cholesterol). It can prevent or alleviate constipation. It can prevent type 2 diabetes by slowing digestion and pre-empting insulin resistance. It can also prevent certain cancers (especially colon cancer). Fiber also helps to counter overweight and obesity by suppressing hunger and by creating a feeling of fullness in the stomach. These are all pretty compelling reasons to get on the fiber bandwagon. It’s not clear, however, whether some or all types of artificial fiber provide the same advantages
Fiber is a substance that isn’t digestible. Natural fibers come from plants, which also provide vitamins, antioxidants, phyto chemicals and nutrients we may not be aware of. The most common types of artificial fiber are maltodextrin, polydextrose and inulin.
Until recently, there’s been little scientific study concerning differences in health benefits between naturally-occurring fiber and artificially-manufactured fiber. Everyone assumes that fiber is fiber, and it’s all good. But maybe it isn’t.
Here’s a list of the most common fake fibers. One of the features they have in common is digestion resistance, which means they’re designed not to respond to digestive enzymes.
Prebiotics promotes the growth of bacteria in your gut
Polydextrose is an odorless white powder made by connecting chains of glucose (dextrose) with bonds that are resistant to digestive enzymes. Polydextrose is used to replace sugar and/or fat. Technically, it has less calories and more fiber.
Maltodextrin is another digestion resistant artificial fiber that also happens to be “clean and clear.” This means it can be used in beverage or liquid products.
Soluble corn fiber
Resistant wheat starch
Here’s the first rub. “Most added fibers don’t affect satiety,” says Joanne Slavin, professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota. It takes a very high dose of fake fiber to get a hunger-reducing effect, and the small amount of fiber typically added to many foods has no effect at all.
Here’s the second rub. The promise of “regularity” is different depending on the type of fake fiber. Even 20 daily grams of inulin has no effect. Whereas 20 grams of polydextrose can increase stool weight by 25% (and create more gas). Slavin gave 22 women chocolate crisp bars with 10 grams of fake fiber. The women were no less hungry than there were after eating bars without the fiber added to them.
It pays to remember that fake things are cheap, unsatisfactory substitute for real things. Fake diamonds are not as valuable as real diamonds. A fake Monet is not as valuable as a real Monet. Likewise, fake fiber is not as valuable as real fiber.