UPDATE: Three years after this post was written, the FDA issued an update to how “fiber” is defined. I will write an article about these updates soon. Until then, here is a link to the FDA announcement: FDA Fiber Guidance
Let me learn ya two life lessons right quick:
- If it’s too good to be true, it mostly likely ain’t true.
- Cutting corners rarely ends in a great result.
A perfect example of breaking the rules above are the mystical and magical products with “added fiber” that are still somehow pure, smooth, and tasty.
Examples of “added fiber” products:
- High fiber yogurt
- High fiber yet pulp-free orange juice (So, you remove fibrous pulp and then ADD back in fiber??? Good. Gravy.)
- Fiber snack bars
- High fiber Pop Tarts
- Super high fiber cereals
- High fiber sweeteners (Yes, this stupid crap actually exists… Pardon my Irish)
For those of you who have eaten any of these, let me ask you a question: Did you experience horrible, debilitating gas after eating them?
Well, if the room-clearing gas isn’t enough to get you to stop eating these products, the horrible secret behind them hopefully will.
The stinky fiber secret
The FDA’s legal definition for fiber is lengthy and confusing, so I’ll sum it up in two sentences:
- An insoluble or soluble non-digestible carbohydrate from plants
- A synthetic non-digestible carbohydrate material
It’s the #2 definition that companies love to exploit like a poor elephant at the circus.
In an effort to hop on the fiber-craze, save money, and keep your products smooth and silky, companies decided to do something suuuuper sneaky. They chemically altered starches (a type of carbohydrate) so that they aren’t digestible by the human body.
Therefore, they created an indigestible carbohydrate that can legally be defined as fiber, yet has no effect on flavor, texture, or any proven health benefits. CAN YOU GRASP HOW SNEAKY THAT IS???
It’s not really “for realz” fiber, you guys. It’s a complex sugar you can’t digest because some scientist jerk CREATED it to be that way.
When you’re consuming products with “added fiber” in them, there’s a chance you might be eating indigestible sugars as opposed to actual fiber.
Quick sugar lesson
There’s something I want to be clear about when throwing around “sugar” terminology. Carbohydrates are sugar molecules strung together, classified by length and type of molecules in the tasty string.
The “for realzie” fiber found in plants is classified as a carbohydrate because fiber is a polysaccharide, which is a carbohydrate made up of bunch of sugar molecules bound together. Starch is also a polysaccharide. However, just because they’re both technically complex carbohydrates doesn’t mean they’re the same.
Example of differences amongst categories: Lucille Ball and I are both white, redheaded, hilarious, talented, AWESOME, women. Yet, we’re completely different human beings. She married Ricky Ricardo and had kids. I did not. She was insanely successful and I’m…well…you see what I mean?
The health benefits associated with these two carbohydrates are totally different! This is already the case when comparing an intact starch to a fiber. However in this case, we’re talking about comparing a starch modified in a lab to be indigestible to a fiber.
There is study upon study upon study (upon study) that supports all the ways fiber is beneficial to your health. A few examples of the benefits can be found here.
There’s also a ton of evidence supporting that indigestible sugars cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea, with little to no evidence supporting any health benefits.
This is because the indigestible sugars either draw in water to get rid of them (diarrhea time!) or provide a feast to the bacteria in your gut. When the bacteria ferment the indigestible sugars, they basically toot out a bunch of waste.
Picture it… Millions of whittle bacteria farting their whittle flagella off in unison.
Modified starches can also be used as thickeners. So if you experience odd gassy episodes after eating salad dressing, ice cream, or even pudding, now you know why.
Why do companies do this?
- They can claim their product is “a good source of fiber” without having any real fiber in them.
- Modified sugars are cheap.
- They can keep their products white, clean, and smooth, which they wouldn’t be able to accomplish with regular fiber.
Like you don’t have enough caca to wade through at the supermarket, amirite?
How to identify lying fiber products
There are a few simple ways to figure out if the product you’re eating has regular fiber or chemically altered starches/isolated fibers.
Is the product smooth and creamy?
If a product claims to have fiber and it’s smooth and creamy, it’s most likely the BUNK.
If I added any type of “for realzie” fiber to yogurt, cheese, snack bars or whatever, the product would be grainy, gritty, or gelatinous. For example, soluble fiber mixed with water looks kinda like this:
Is there a trademark symbol after the ingredient?
- Activia Fiber®
- Bifidus Regularis®
Here’s the thing. You can’t trademark or patent something that occurs naturally in nature (usually). I can’t rename a piece of lettuce and trademark it just because I call it “Unicorn Greens.” Although, I bet people would buy it!
These companies can trademark their ingredients because they’ve altered them in a way that distinguishes them from similar products sold by competing companies and/or the naturally occurring products, i.e. plant fiber.
Therefore, they have been modified in a lab or someone’s garage. Who knows!
Check the ingredient label
If there is a product claiming to be high in fiber, you should be able to find ingredients on the label such as:
- Chicory root
- Whole grains such as wheat, oats, bran, etc.
- Fruit and/or vegetables
- Flaxseed, or any seeds for that matter
- Psyllium (I have some issues with this stuff, but that’s another article!)
- Legumes (a.k.a. beans)
Side note: Chicory root is the HIGHEST in prebiotic fiber (food for good bacteria). If you’re eating bars or products with high amounts of chicory root, you might ship yourself to Pluto with the amount of gas you will expel.
Here’s an example of a fiber bar with “for realzie” fiber in it:
Now keep in mind, if you go from 0 to 60 on the fiber meter, you will experience gas. Your body needs time to adjust. Fiber should be increased gently and slowly to avoid tootie repercussions.
**The fiber bar shown above has A LOT of fiber in it. It should only be eaten by trained fiber-professionals.**
Ingredients that set off alarms:
- Trademarked ingredients
- Modified food starches (sometimes used as a thickener, but if it’s listed on a product with added fiber, chances are that this is their “fiber source”).
- Sugar cane fiber
- Inulin (isolated fiber from chicory root, so technically an extracted fiber. But OMG the TOOTIE FRUITIES this will cause!)
Finally, pay attention to how the ingredients are listed. Ingredients must be listed in order of weight, meaning that the first ingredient takes up the most weight and makes up the majority of the product.
So, when ingredients like “fructose”, “sugar” and “modified food starch” are listed much higher than “bran” and “oats”, it’s not a good sign.
Nutrition label example with a bunch of red flags:
So what have we learned?
Lesson #1: Food companies are shady. Be critical!
Shock of shocks, food companies utilize whatever tactics they can to trick you into buying their products. What grinds my gears is that they’re tricking people who genuinely care about improving their health into buying products that have little to no effect on their health. Additionally, the products might make the people feel physically worse.
ARGHhhhh… That makes me feel like this:
Lesson #2: Stop cutting corners and eat the whole dang food.
Cutting corners to “have your cake and eat it too” will sometimes result in eating a bunch of worthless junk that causes major gas bombs. I can’t totally blame the companies for all of this. Their actions are the result of giving you exactly what you want! You don’t want to eat fruits and veggies and instead will gorge on smooth, creamy yogurts, cheeses, and drinks with fake fiber added.
The problem is that these products are basically nutritionally worthless, will make you unpopular at parties, and cause you physical pain.
Again…EAT REAL, WHOLE FOOD PEOPLE.
So, stop being a bum and realize that in order to meet your fiber intake for the day, you’re going to have to eat some real frickin’ fiber. And if you aren’t sure what foods have fiber in them, here’s a handy guide: High Fiber Foods List.