Fiber. It's the new all-star ingredient stealing the spotlight in toaster pastries, yogurt, canned soups, even ice cream.
Some fiber standbys are bumping up their servings, too. From whole-wheat bread to cereal bars drizzled with dark chocolate, the number of processed foods with extra fiber is growing.
Manufacturers introduced 782 products with fiber claims on package labels in the past year, according to the Nielsen Company, a marketing research firm. In the summer of 2005, some 2,000 products advertised fiber on the label. In 2009, according to Nielsen, nearly 3,500 do.
Among the familiar foods with newly added fiber are some varieties of Progresso Soup that contain more than one-fourth of a day's recommended intake, and Kellogg's Froot Loops and Apple Jacks cereals.
Is this sudden infatuation with dietary fiber just another food fad? Have Americans finally embraced the once-lowly ingredient long-associated with prune juice and bran muffins? WebMD examines the forces driving fiber's newfound fame.
Froot Loops and Fiber
Kellogg is one company seeking to satisfy the demand for more fiber. It plans to boost the fiber content of most of its cereals to at least 10% of the recommended daily amount by the end of 2010.
Kellogg is starting its fiber-boosting campaign with children's cereals because of research that shows mothers are concerned about how much fiber their children get, says Nelson G. Almeida, PhD, the company's vice president of global nutrition science, labeling, and marketing. A serving of revamped Froot Loops has jumped from less than a gram of fiber to 3. The sugar content remains the same at 13 grams, about 3 teaspoons.
"If we can find a way to provide more fiber to our consumers, if we need to add a little bit of sugar or sweetness to the product to be able to have them eat it, I think it's a good thing," Almeida says.
Boosting Fiber Is Easier Than Ever
The boom in foods with added fiber comes as food manufacturers are tapping into demand for functional foods, which supply health benefits beyond nutrition. New technologies have created fiber that is easier to add to foods and tastier, Almeida says.
Much of the fiber added to the newest wave of fortified foods is soluble and comes from inulin, a plant compound commonly extracted from chicory root that can make low-fat foods taste creamier and add sweetness. Inulin also is derived from byproducts of sugar production from beets. Soluble corn fiber, which replaces traditional sweeteners as well as adding fiber, is also turning up on ingredient lists.
"Companies have been realizing this is a relatively easy thing to do to enhance a food," says Mary Camire, PhD, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine and president of AACC International, formerly the American Association of Cereal Chemists. "The technology is there, and the science on the benefits of fiber is improving."
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.
Health Benefits of Fiber
The heart-health tag is also giving fiber a big boost, especially now that the FDA has approved health claims on package labels for foods that contain certain soluble fibers, such as rolled oats and whole-grain barley, related to reducing the risk of heart disease when eaten as part of a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Some studies have linked fiber consumption to reducing the risk of cancer, but the evidence is mixed.
Can You Eat Too Much Fiber?
Too much fiber can cause problems such as bloating and gas, especially in those not accustomed to a high-fiber diet. Some food packages come with warnings that eating too much fiber too soon may cause gastrointestinal symptoms.
Here's how Slavin and Camire suggest you work fiber into your diet.
- Add more fiber gradually. Let your body adjust to increased levels for a week or two before increasing again.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Don't load up in one sitting. Try to spread you fiber consumption throughout the day.
- Look for products with at least 8 grams of fiber per serving. That's about one-third of the recommended daily intake for women and children. This way you'll get the most benefit for the least amount of calories.
- Be consistent about when you eat fiber-filled foods. "Getting a good slug of fiber every morning is going to help your body adjust and become more regular," Camire says. "If you have a croissant one day and a big slug of All-Bran the next, your body won't know what to do."
- Following the food guidelines in MyPyramid will help you reach recommended daily intake levels by eating enough whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.