How'd They Get Fiber Into My Yogurt?
By Karen Berman
A few years ago, if you went to the supermarket hoping to add fiber to your diet, you'd head for the produce department, canned beans section, or the cereal aisle. Today, you can also check the dairy, frozen, and baking sections, too — and practically any aisle in the store.
That's because advances in food processing and updates in federal regulations have allowed manufacturers to fortify foods such as yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, ice cream, brownies, baking mixes, and snacks with a new generation of fiber ingredients that are extracted from plants or synthesized in the lab. Brands like Splenda, V8, Fiber One, and a host of others are all touting their products' fiber content.
Unlike the added fiber of the past — whose flavor and texture was often likened to tree bark or cardboard — this new generation is largely undetectable by the eater. As a result, food manufacturers are adding fiber to foods that would have been impossible to fortify a few years ago, and they're hoping that these products will be just what the doctor ordered.
Why Add Fiber?
Fiber refers to a spectrum of indigestible carbohydrates found in plants. Traditionally, fiber — or roughage, as your grandmother called it — was seen as an aid to digestion. Recent research has shown that fiber does much more; one important function is to slow absorption of carbohydrate into the bloodstream, which can help mitigate blood sugar spikes. And that's just one of fiber's many benefits.
Yet most Americans get only about one-third of the 25 to 30 grams daily that's recommended.
Enter the new functional fibers, so named by the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine to differentiate them from the "dietary fiber" that occurs naturally in food. Functional fiber comprises an array of substances that includes: inulin (a plant extract, most often chicory); oligofructose (a.k.a. fructooligosaccharide or FOS); and resistant maltodextrin (a cornstarch derivative); to name just a few. Research has shown that functional fibers have some or all of the same beneficial effects as dietary fiber. According to the Institute of Medicine, dietary and functional fiber can together make up "total fiber" in any food product. Many in the food industry and in public health see functional fiber as a way to close the fiber gap.
"The number-one goal is to get adequate amounts," says Jessica Crandall, RD, CDE, a Denver-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). "If you're not getting enough in what you normally consume, supplementation is completely appropriate."
That does not mean functional fiber can completely replace dietary fiber. Functional fibers are refined "at the molecular level" to ensure uniformity in processed foods, explains food chemist Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science and research firm. The process can destroy the beneficial plant chemicals and nutrients that occur along with the fiber, she says, so it's important to eat whole foods, which offer the full complement of dietary fiber and other nutrients.
Take It Slow
Whether you are adding fiber to your diet via functional, dietary, or both sources, it's wise to start slowly, says Crandall, as a rapid increase — say from 10 grams to 30 grams daily — can cause gas, bloating, and discomfort. She advises increasing fiber gradually and increasing water consumption at the same time.
Fiber is a friend — to your digestive system, your heart, and the rest of your body, too. If you take advantage of the new functional fiber, just make sure to get plenty from whole plant foods, too.
Karen Berman is a writer and editor who specializes in food, health, and lifestyle topics. She is the author of Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family and Easy Peasy: Snacks and Treats to Make and Eat, to be published by Running Press in May 2012.
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