Taste plays a major role in fibre's rise

You say fiber, we say fibre, but regardless of the spelling, the humble fibre category has such a strong following that many food categories are repositioning their health benefits on their fibre content alone. The lowly fibre has gone beyond regularity to a number of health benefits, including cholesterol reduction, satiation and lower caloric content. Savvy manufacturers know that boosting fibre content can help build brand loyalty.

Fibre's role as an essential for health is well known, but its taste and side-effect implications were major deterrents. But in 2009, fibre fortification moved beyond prunes and bran to isolated fibres and purified ingredients that may mimic the intact fibre naturally occurring in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Food chemists created these so-called functional fibres — inulin, polydextrose, resistant starch, fructans, maltodextrins — so consumers wouldn't suffer the grainy gummy textures of yesteryear, and can instead reach for creamy yoghurts, clear drinks and other previously fibre-free indulgent foods for their daily roughage.

The fibre industry has evolved considerably and now offers a range of ingredients with simple, label-friendly monikers such as functional fibre, insoluble fibre and soluble fibre. Consumer research, however, reveals that these terms mean little to less than 10 per cent of consumers (Tate & Lyle). Fibre or dietary fibre implies 'healthy.' 'Whole grains,' once an appealing marketing term, is no longer synonymous with fibre.

Taste is a great accomplishment for the fibre industry. More consumers than ever before believe fibre-rich food and drinks taste good. The key in solving this perception problem was to select fibres that didn't cause gastric distress, and to emphasize the fibre content of favorite foods and beverages.

The million-dollar question, however, is whether isolated fibres are as effective as their native counterparts. University of Minnesota researcher and leading expert on dietary fibre, Joanne Slavin, said, "The evidence on isolated fibres is skimpy at best." There is little evidence to prove that the isolated fibres can match the functionality of dietary fibres in their natural state.

For example, science suggests that inulin (extracted from chicory root or Jerusalem artichoke) may boost beneficial bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract; there is little or no evidence of its role in lowering cholesterol or promoting regularity. It is important to note that the weight-loss and cholesterol-reduction benefits discovered in people eating high-fibre, lower-calorie foods such as fruits and vegetables do not likely apply to calorie-dense foods such as sugar-coated cereals, chocolate-enrobed nutrition bars, or artificially colored and flavoured waters, which means CPG companies touting high-fibre, empty-calorie foods may be feeding American consumers more than just a line.

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