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What counts as fibre?

US: The FDA to decide whether 26 ingredients count as fibre

What counts as dietary fibre? That’s up for debate. The US FDA is reviewing 26 ingredients that food manufacturers use to bulk up the fibre content of processed foods to determine if there’s a health benefit.

If you’re a nutrition-label reader, the list includes some familiar-ish sounding ingredients — such as inulin, which is often sourced from chicory root.

Other ingredients on the “do-these-count-as-fibre?” list include gum acacia, bamboo fibre, retrograded corn starch, and xylooligosaccharides. Some of these fibres are extracted from plant sources, while others are synthetic.

Some critics argue that the FDA should not allow these added fibres to count as fibre on nutrition facts labels.

“The food industry has hijacked the advice to eat more fibre by putting isolated, highly processed fibre into what are essentially junk foods,” says Bonnie Liebman of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

A bunch of packaged foods contain added fibre. Some examples include Fiber One bar products, some cereal and instant oatmeal products, as well as some pastas and English muffins.

Liebman argues a much better way to get the recommended 25 to 38 grams of daily fibre is to eat more foods that are naturally rich in fibre such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains.

High-fibre diets may help protect against a range of diseases, from Type 2 diabetes and heart disease to certain types of cancer.

The FDA lists a range of health benefits linked to dietary fibre. For instance, fibre can help lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels, as well as blood pressure. fibre can also aid laxation and bowel function, and it can promote a feeling of fullness, which may lead people to eat less.

The FDA is in the process of determining whether isolated and synthetic fibres provide a beneficial physiological effect to human health. The agency says that going forward, there must be at least one demonstrated benefit.

“Only fibres that meet the definition can be declared as a dietary fibre on the Nutrition Facts label,” according to this Q&A about the review process. The agency is reviewing the science.

The food industry has weighed in, pointing to the demonstrated benefits of some of these added fibres.

“I think the main benefit is that they contribute to regularity and laxation,” says Robert Burns, vice president of health and nutrition policy at the GMA.

Burns says most people don’t consume enough fibre, so “if you can supplement [with] snack bars that people are eating, it [can] go a long way to meeting dietary recommendations.”

Critics say an optimal diet is one that includes lots of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains. These foods are not only naturally rich in fibre, they also contain other beneficial compounds such as vitamins, minerals and anti-inflammatory compounds.

“Highly processed snack bars typically contain combinations of processed starch and added sugar. They’re low in vitamins and minerals,” says Dr David Ludwig of the Harvard School of Public Health.

“Just adding isolated fibre back in [to these processed foods] does not cover up for those nutritional deficiencies.”


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