Eating more fiber has been on consumers’ to-do lists for decades. Everyone knows that fiber helps with digestion, satiety and overall gut health. And as we age, the motivation to eat better grows, research shows.
“In a recent Health Focus International survey commissioned by Beneo, 85% of over-50s have shown a willingness to take responsibility for their health, recognizing that their short-term health depends on how well they take care of themselves take care yourself,” says Anke Sentko, Vice President for Regulatory Affairs and Nutritional Communication Beneowhich makes inulin and oligofructose, which are dietary fibers in the “inulin-like fructan” category.
“A key way to achieve this is through a shift in eating and drinking,” she continues, “with 30% of consumers over 50 saying the main reason they choose healthy food and drink is to ensure their future health another 28% choose these products to improve their daily health.”
What appears to be changing – and this is affecting how food processors market the fiber content of their products – is the reasons why consumers want fiber in their foods. Sure, people still want to eat things that make their bathroom moments more satisfying, but they also want the dozens of other benefits that fiber brings, ranging from lowering cholesterol to preventing cancer.
“The reasons we are looking for higher fiber have expanded, reinforcing and evolving this trend [of adding fiber to food]”, says Wendy Bazilian, a public health physician and nutritionist and food industry consultant. “High fiber used to really be code for ‘digestion’, meaning to boost digestion and promote regularity. Interest and research into the gut microbiome has exploded over the past two decades, and research and interest in many nutrients and areas related to the gut is hot.”
Hot fiber attributes
The FDA identified two classes of dietary fiber when it published its formal definition of dietary fiber in 2016: naturally occurring dietary fiber, which is “intrinsic and intact” in plants, and “isolated or synthetic nondigestible carbohydrates (having 3 or more monomeric units) as determined by the FDA , to have physiological effects beneficial to human health.”
“Intrinsic and intact” fibers are those found naturally in grains, fruits and vegetables. Wholemeal bread, for example, contains the bran of the wheat kernel, the fiber-rich outer layer. According to the FDA, “Foods containing these fibers have been shown to have beneficial effects and manufacturers are not required to demonstrate that they have beneficial physiological effects on human health.”
Fiber in the “isolated or synthetic” category isn’t necessarily any less nutritious than naturally occurring fiber, it’s simply not an intact part of a plant. Fibers in this category include inulin, guar gum, pectin, locust bean gum, psyllium husk, and soluble beta-glucan fiber.
Both categories of fiber have nutritional properties that go beyond the classic fiber benefit of improved personal care. Today’s consumers are looking for fiber to lower cholesterol, keep gut bacteria healthy, regulate appetite, provide sustained energy, prevent cancer and more. The good thing is that fiber can actually do these things.
Take cholesterol lowering, for example: “Soluble fiber may decrease the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream,” states the Mayo Clinic website. “Five to 10 grams or more of soluble fiber per day will lower your LDL cholesterol. A serving of breakfast cereal with oatmeal or oat bran provides 3 to 4 grams of fiber.”
Quaker Oat Bran, for example, advertises on its label, “As part of a heart-healthy diet, the soluble fiber in oat bran helps lower cholesterol!”
Because fiber makes foods more filling — and because it replaces some of the functional properties of sugar — it also has tangential benefits for heart health. For example, inulin, a dietary fiber from chicory roots, is used to reduce calories in baked goods. It can replace some of the sugar content and help maintain the flavor and texture consumers expect.
“In terms of additional health benefits, Beneo’s Orafti inulin and oligofructose (chicory root fiber) reduce the glycemic response of foods by replacing sugar or other high-glycemic carbohydrates in food formulations, while also fortifying these foods with fiber, thereby helping to bridge the fiber gap,” notes Denisse Colindres, Nutrition Communication Manager, North America at Beneo.
Of course, the cancer-preventing benefits of fiber are great these days, too. Research from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) shows that every 10-gram increase in fiber is linked to a 7 percent lower risk of colon cancer. “It’s possible that fiber also plays a role in a lower risk of other types of cancer, but that evidence is still very limited,” AICR nutritionist Karen Collins said during a webinar on the topic.
The ability to advertise cancer prevention on a label can certainly be a consumer lure. The label on Arnold Stone Ground Whole Wheat Bread provides an example: “A diet high in whole grains and other plant-based foods and low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.” “
Finally, fiber can support popular diets. The keto diet, for example, limits carbs, which are a popular source of fiber (think bread). So, a food product that is high in fiber without the carbs will sell well among keto followers.
“Fiber as an ingredient is beneficial when it comes to helping a food be keto-friendly, but can also market ‘high-fiber’ if the amount meets the claim definitions,” says Bazilian.
Chia flour added to baked goods, for example, helps make them keto-friendly, she says. This flour is high in fiber, naturally gluten-free and a good source of omega-3. An example of a product that uses chia is Riverside Natural Foods’ Good to Go Soft Baked Snacks. The company uses Benexia Xia fiber in its baked goods to increase fiber content and eliminate some other ingredients, including hydrocolloids.
Along with touting the ability to fight cancer, heart disease and other scourges, many fiber content brands brag about being clean, sustainable, etc. Bazilian calls this the “plus” of fiber labels.
“Decades ago, fiber was just fiber. Now people want the benefit that comes with fiber and they want to know where it came from,” she says. “What is the source? Where does the fiber come from? If the fiber source helps with texture or shelf life, then that’s what makes the fiber even more valuable to the food product and development team.”
Communicate fiber content
Of course, adding fiber to a processed food product isn’t going to help sales if consumers don’t know about it. Smart marketers pay attention to what consumers want to hear—talk less about going to the bathroom—while paying close attention to FDA labeling regulations.
Cascadian Farm Organic Hearty Morning Fiber Cereal is a good example of a product that’s high in fiber but doesn’t emphasize the “better bathroom experience,” says Bazilian. Instead, the brand touts the organic nature of its fibrous elements, the fact that it’s non-GMO, and supports sustainable farming practices.
Compare that to Uncle Sam’s Cereal, a brand launched in 1908 that once used the slogan “a natural laxative.” That was a long time ago, of course, and the cereal, which is owned by the Post and sold through its Three Sisters business unit, now boasts on the label that it’s vegan and heart-healthy. These factors are clearly more attractive to breakfast cereal buyers than improved bowel movements.
In terms of FDA regulations, it’s no coincidence that the makers of Finncrisp Sour Dough Rye Thins use almost exactly the same language regarding cancer and fiber as the makers of Arnold Stone Ground Whole Wheat: “Nutrition rich in whole grains and other plant-based foods Foods low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.”
The reason both companies use this language isn’t because they use the same copywriter – it’s because they strictly adhere to FDA regulations. As with all health claims, the FDA is strict about what brands can say about cancer prevention. They offer two “model” claims:
- “Low-fat diets high in fiber-rich grains, fruits, and vegetables may reduce the risk of some cancers, a disease associated with many factors.”
- “The development of cancer depends on many factors. Eating a low-fat diet with lots of grains, fruits, and vegetables that contain fiber may reduce the risk of some types of cancer.”
Adding fiber to processed foods is a trend that has been developing for decades but doesn’t seem to be slowing down, especially as consumers age and seek more ways to stay healthy.
“Interestingly, over the past 10 years, consumer focus has shifted from life-threatening acute conditions, which are at the forefront of global health concerns, to those focused on daily life and aging,” says Sentko.
“As we age, the gut microbiome changes and weakens the internal defense system,” she continues. “The benefits that nutrition can offer in terms of supporting gut health and boosting the body’s immune system are of increasing interest to older consumers, particularly as 50% say they have gastrointestinal/digestion issues and 56% say their immune health or are very concerned. ”