How the food industry fools you into settling for fake fiber

Dietary advice is constantly changing…

First, cholesterol was bad. So, you gave up eggs and whole milk. Then, carbs were bad. So, you gave up bread and pasta.

At one point, soy was healthy. So, you stocked up on soy milk. Then, soy was unhealthy. So, you stocked up on almond milk.

But even as nutritional perspectives (and your shopping list) continue to shift, one piece of dietary wisdom remains reliable across the decades — eat plenty of fiber.

Research shows this simple piece of advice may be the best way to prevent chronic diseases and stay healthy. The problem is not all fiber is created equal…

There’s lots of fake fiber on the market. And if you’re fooled into buying it, it can easily send your diet (and health) off track…

The food industry hijacked a healthy nutrient to sell you more junk food

Fiber-filled foods have always been a safe dietary choice. There was a time when all nutritionists, dietitians, health coaches, and doctors agreed about. But as fiber secured its place as an indisputable part of a healthy diet, the food industry saw dollar signs…

They started adding isolated, highly processed fiber to packaged foods to make them seem healthier. Look around your grocery store. What do you see?

High-fiber brownies, yogurt, juices. Foods that normally have little to no fiber are suddenly fiber-filled powerhouses.

At first, all this extra fiber seems like a good thing. After all, the average American only eats 15 grams of fiber per day when the minimum recommended intake is 25 to 29 grams per day. So, we should take fiber wherever we can get it.

But here’s the problem…

These foods trick people into getting their fiber from junk food. Everyone knows a brownie isn’t healthy. But if the label says it contains 10 grams of fiber, you may think, “Well, maybe it’s not that bad, after all.”

Pretty soon, you’re getting all your fiber from nutrient-void junk food that contains artificial fiber rather than whole foods that contain fiber naturally. And the FDA is at least partially on board with this fake fiber switcheroo the food industry is pulling on us…

The FDA’s stance on fake fiber

The FDA’s been trying to figure out what to do about all the fake fiber in our food for years.

In 2014, the agency decided to create an official definition of dietary fiber. And in that definition, they included an important requirement: isolated fibers added to food must have “physiological effects that are beneficial to human health” to qualify as fiber.

That was a good thing since before, food companies were adding some synthetic or isolated fibers that didn’t have any proven benefits for human health. So, not only were these companies tricking you into purchasing junk food under the guise of getting more fiber, the fiber they were feeding you wasn’t even providing health benefits. The nerve!

But despite this one wise call from the FDA, the agency is still on board with many of the synthetic and isolated fibers filling our processed foods. In 2018, they identified eight types of fiber that can receive the fiber label on foods:

  • Mixed plant cell wall fibers
  • Arabinoxylan
  • Alginate
  • Inulin and inulin-type fructans
  • High amylose starch (resistant starch 2)
  • Galactooligosaccharide
  • Polydextrose
  • Resistant maltodextrin/dextrin

But hey, the FDA’s decision isn’t that bad. I guess if you’re going to eat processed foods that contain barely any nutrients, why not got a little extra fiber?

The problem arises when you don’t realize that processed foods advertised as “high fiber” aren’t your best option for this healthy nutrient. If you’re educated about this issue, then you can make wise choices and not fall for this fake fiber ploy.

Finding authentic sources of fiber

So, next time you’re tempted to eat a cookie, brownie, dairy product or cereal bar because it’s “high-fiber,” stop yourself. Turn to a natural source of fiber instead.

Here are some foods that are chock-full of fiber (and other beneficial nutrients) without any help from food manufacturers:

  • 1 cup of split peas (16 grams)
  • 1 cup of lentils (15.5 grams)
  • 1 cup of black beans (15 grams)
  • 1 cup of baked beans (10 grams)
  • 1 ounce of chia seeds (10 grams)
  • 1 cup of green peas (9 grams)
  • 1 cup of raspberries (8 grams)
  • 1 cup of whole wheat spaghetti (6 grams)
  • 1 cup of barley (6 grams)
  • ¾ cup bran flakes (5.5 grams)
  • 1 medium pear (5.5 grams)
  • 1 cup of quinoa (5 grams)
  • 1 cup oatmeal (5 grams)
  • 1 cup of broccoli (5 grams)
  • 1 cup of turnip greens (5 grams)

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Sources:

  1. The FDA Will Decide Whether 26 Ingredients Count As Fiber — NPR
  2. Faux Fiber Versus the Real Thing — Berkley Wellness
  3. FDA Adds Inulin and Seven Other Fibers to Legal Dietary Fiber Definition — Nutritional Outlook
  4. FDA unveils dietary fibers guidance: Good news for inulin, polydextrose, some gray areas remaining — Food Navigator
  5. Chart of high-fiber foods — Mayo Clinic
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.