Are Added Fibers Good for You?

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Only 1 in 20 people in the US consumes the recommended amount of fiber.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans call out dietary fiber as a nutrient of public health concern because our typically poor fiber intakes are associated with health problems such as heart disease, abnormal laxation, and colon cancer. Yet if we ate adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, we would surely meet or exceed our fiber needs.

Processed foods with added fibers can potentially help close the fiber gap. But are these isolated or synthetic fibers beneficial? That depends. Some have proven health benefits, but others do not. Soon it will be easier to identify the added fibers that might boost health. In 2020, most food packages will show the new version of the Nutrition Facts label, which will count an added fiber only if research proves it to have a health effect.

So Which Added Fibers Have Proven Health Effects?

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to evaluate research and petitions to count various non-digestible carbohydrates as dietary fiber. To date, more than a dozen compounds count as fiber. Here are a few.

  • Psyllium husk has a laxative effect and helps to lower both cholesterol and blood sugar levels. You can find it in breakfast cereals, bread, snack bars, and supplements.
  • Beta-glucan also helps to lower both cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It occurs naturally in oats and barley and is sometimes added to smoothies, yogurt drinks, breakfast cereal, and baked goods.
  • Inulin (also labeled as chicory root) serves as a prebiotic, meaning that it beneficially alters the composition or function of your gut microbes, providing you with a health benefit. Food manufactures frequently add inulin to yogurt, cereal bars, breakfast cereals, and baked goods.
  • Cellulose is used to normalize bowel habits. You might find it in some reduced-calorie foods because it adds volume without adding calories. It’s also common in fiber supplements.

Special Considerations:

While it’s clear that the FDA-approved list of added fibers can help us bump up our fiber intakes, we must also be mindful of the other elements in these processed foods such as added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. Read labels to minimize these negative nutrients while maximizing fiber and other health-boosting compounds.

If your diet is typically low in fiber, you’ll be wise to add fiber gradually to avoid discomfort.

For example, some people complain of gas and bloating with chicory root or inulin. Because it’s fully and rapidly fermented in the gut, large doses may be problematic for some people. Some people are even bothered by small doses. Experts suggest building tolerance by adding just a couple of grams of inulin or chicory root at a time until you can enjoy the amount in a full cereal bar or other product.

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND

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