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Fiber: Today's 'It' Ingredient

From breakfast cereal to chocolate bars, fiber is the new darling of the food world.

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Fiber

Although most new products fail to find enough buyers to remain on shelves, foods with fiber claims have staying power. In a recent survey from the International Food Information Council, an industry association, consumers rated fiber as the top ingredient they look for when choosing foods or beverages with added health benefits.

But just because we say we want more fiber, doesn't mean we're eating enough of it. According to the Institute of Medicine, children and adults get less than half the recommended daily intake of 19 grams to 38 grams a day.

Yet nutritionists are cautious about recommending certain foods with added fiber, especially if they come with lots of calories, sugar, salt, or fat.

"High-fiber foods are the foods we love people to eat: fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains," says Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. "We don't want people to think just because they've eaten a high-fiber bar means they're off the hook."

Especially if that bar adds another 200 calories to the daily total, when two-thirds of adults already are overweight or obese.

Nutritionists like Slavin are weighing the benefits of added fiber over potential drawbacks.

"It's an incredibly hard sell in nutrition to get people to make better choices," Slavin says. "The realistic side of me says people eat less fiber than they did 30 years ago, despite quite a bit of public knowledge and interest in it."

Added Fiber vs. Foods Naturally High in Fiber

Camire acknowledges that foods naturally rich in fiber, such as whole grains and beans, may be more filling -- but adds that many people don't prepare these foods.

"If you're going to grab something convenient," she says, "something that's fortified with fiber makes sense."

Slavin wants to make sure nutrition fundamentals don't get overlooked in the fiber stampede.

"I never want to give up on having people eat the higher fiber food choices, rather than thinking just because we sneak fiber into processed foods, it's the same," she says. "It's not."

That's because if you look at the big picture, foods fortified with fiber may simply be less healthful overall. Naturally high-fiber foods contain many other plant compounds that may be partly responsible for some of the health effects credited to fiber. The American Dietetic Association's position paper on fiber states that adding purified dietary fiber to foods is less likely to benefit Americans than changing diets to include more whole foods that are rich in the substance.

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