Editorial: Fiber Revisited: New Tricks for an Old Dog?

Industry often finds itself in the great position of being able to clarify what consumers have known for decades, putting this knowledge in a current ‘context’ of ‘health information’ so that consumers can benefit from emerging science and product news. We are seeing a good example of that right now for omega-3s from fish oil, with the early antecedent being the not so well flavored cod liver oil of earlier decades, with other examples including folic acid and other vitamins and minerals as they are further substantiated (although not as frequently as we’d like) by current science.

Dietary fiber (Fibre) has been known since the ‘50’s, and from the ‘70’s, has been described as “the remnants of edible plant cells, polysaccharides, lignin and associated substances resistant to (hydrolysis) digestion by the alimentary enzymes of humans." A wikipedia definition elaborates: “… the indigestible portion of plant foods that pushes food through the digestive system, absorbing water and easing defecation.” Although known for years, awareness of the properties of various sources of fiber has seen a re-emergence as digestive health, satiety and more recently, immune health and even blood sugar management capabilities have received scientific attention, and in fact, validation.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal comments on the re-emergence in profile of this clunky category, leading with the line “Food makers are packing more products with high amounts of fiber, and they're betting that new food technology can overcome consumers' traditional distaste for the goods.” This one line illustrates that formulators too, have found new interest as flavor technology developments have meant more tools at the ready, especially as packaged foods giants attempt to respond to consumers demand for more nutrition in currently available brands. The article specifically describes previous ‘fiber fads’, where interest has faded, “largely due to taste”, observing that new technologies make a decent taste achievable. Does this fact alone guarantee new life for the category?

There are several forces impacting the fiber category, not least of which is the fact that there are numerous product entries from around the globe all trying to shake the product development tree. In some cases, extensive research programs support the products; in others, they’re generic entries in a growing category with no specific substantiation – they’re merely sources of fiber. Yet, there is no denying that something is happening, and it’s paving the way for new opportunities.

In my mind, part of this new emergence is due to the recent success of another category – probiotics. With success in Asia and Europe, this category has begun blossoming in North America in recent years as consumers began understanding that these products were good for overall health in addition to digestion. While consumers in general didn’t want to know ‘too’ much, the association was created, the category grew, and functional products containing ‘bugs’ have been accepted. It’s a challenge to communicate deep science to consumers. Many categories are wrestling with this issue, with the immune category being among the hardest to communicate. Probiotics only achieved success in North America when the message was simplified, a lesson marketers need to take to heart. Research has suggested that messages resonate most strongly when there is a well understood relationship, an inherent one being the best case, between a product and health. Fiber has that status, and as such, probably has some lots of life left in it. But here’s where the real tie to probiotics comes in. As consumers have accepted the term, they’ve come across another related term, ‘prebiotics’, defined in wikipedia as” non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth or activity of bacteria in the digestive system which are beneficial to the health of the body.” With an acceptance of the role of good bacteria, information about the food for these bacteria becomes a logical progression. Industry media has been speaking about prebiotics for some time, mainstream media is beginning to cover the subject, and signs indicate that ‘prebiotics’ have begun the awareness movement from natural to mass. A simpler, acceptable message is still required, but many signs would seem to indicate a re-emergence of fiber through legitimizing prebiotics if for no other reason. I would anticipate that the factors above cause a re-discovery of fiber, allowing companies to begin the art of differentiation as they seek the perfect industry and then consumer message. One outcome might be a complete re-exploration of fiber and prebiotics, more condition specific science, and a better message for consumers than ‘contains fiber’.

And of course, trying to cover off too many health conditions with a single category, too early in category maturation, is also not a good idea. This is one area of risk for such promising categories such as omega-3’s and Vitamin D. If they can do too much, it’s confusing and runs the risk of being perceived as too good to be true. This does seem to be the biggest challenge for promising categories.

And for fiber, new interest seems imminent. Can technology, science and marketing combine to create real consumer benefit? It’s a great industry test case for an old category.

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