What qualifies as fiber in your diet? It may be up for debate

FDA review of 26 common food ingredients may change how fiber content is labeled

If a rose by any other name is still a rose, does the same go for what qualifies as fiber in the food you eat? That’s up for some debate.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is poised to look at 26 ingredients commonly listed on food labels as sources of fiber. Some of these ingredients may ring a familiar tone — oat hull fiber, soy fiber, even cottonseed fiber. Others — such as karaya gum, pullulan or alginate — may have even the most savvy label readers asking, “What exactly is that?”

According to Jennifer O. Kyser, registered dietitian with Norton Weight Management Services, the question centers on what qualifies as naturally occurring fiber.

“Natural fiber occurs in foods such as vegetables, whole grains, fruits and cereal bran,” Kyser said. “In contrast, many manufactured foods contain isolated fibers, such as chicory root, which are extracted and added to processed foods.”

The FDA will be looking at whether these added fibers can be listed as dietary fiber on Nutrition Facts labels. Some of these fibers are extracted from plant sources, while others are synthetic.

For most people, dietary guidelines recommend getting 25 to 38 grams of fiber daily. Eating foods that are high in fiber can help support a number of health benefits, including:

  • Lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving bowel function
  • Increasing mineral absorption in the intestinal tract
  • Promoting a feeling of fullness that can help reduce appetite and improve calorie intake

When it comes to fiber’s health benefits, potential label changes might spark some questions. Isn’t some fiber better than none? If someone (perhaps a child or older person) won’t eat fruits or vegetables, aren’t they better off getting at least some fiber even if it comes from processed foods, such as a fortified snack bar?

The FDA’s review will include looking at whether isolated or synthetic fibers provide the general health benefits of natural fiber. The agency is reviewing the science and has said, going forward, only fibers that can show at least one health benefit can be listed on the Nutrition Facts label.

In the meantime, Kyser advises being an informed consumer.

“It’s important to look at food labels and read the ingredients,” she said. “Pay attention not just to fiber, but fat, carbohydrates and especially sugar content.”

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