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It’s no surprise that fiber, with its significant consumption benefits, is a frequently discussed nutrient. I strive to serve my family a balanced dinner that helps meet our fiber goals. Still, my family struggles with meeting the goals. And we’re not alone. Despite fiber’s utility, there are continuous reports of Americans falling short of the recommended daily fiber intake. Due to this disconnect, there are ample opportunities for health professionals, the food industry and, most importantly, consumers to focus on fiber.
Research continues to reveal and support the benefits of fiber. It lowers the incidence of heart attacks as well as death from heart disease, aids digestive functions, helps lower cholesterol and controls blood sugar levels. If that weren’t enough, studies show it increases the feeling of fullness, aiding weight-control efforts, and contains fewer calories than other carbohydrates.
All that said, we don’t see any uptick in fiber consumption. The average consumer consumes a mere 10-15 g. of fiber each day. In most cases, people should be eating double that amount. So why is fiber intake falling to the wayside?
With new diet trends surfacing year after year, staple nutrients such as fiber may not be top-of-mind. Consumers are gravitating to “free-from” products (think fat-free, sugar-free and, increasingly, gluten-free). The recent spike in gluten-free dieters means fiber is taking a serious hit, as gluten-free products are often low in both protein and fiber. New product launches designed to meet consumers’ demands only amplify this. Only 5% of the new products launched in 2010 carried a high-fiber claim, compared to 11% that carried a gluten-free claim. This claim is even down from 12.5% in 1989.
Conflicting information may also play a role in lower fiber consumption. There’s a disconnect between the meaning of “soluble” versus “insoluble,” “dietary” versus “functional” and “fortified” versus “natural” fiber. With so many variations and views, consumers have a tough time sorting out the facts and understanding fiber’s true benefits. The recommended daily fiber intake—about 25 g. for women and 38 g. for men a day—doesn’t differentiate between “dietary” and “functional” fiber, although mixed messaging can be misleading for consumers.
By consuming more foods such as whole-wheat bread, pasta and oatmeal, or by eating products fortified with cereal fibers, consumers would be on a better track to reach the recommended daily fiber intake.
Getting the word out
Given the plentiful options for consumers to increase their daily fiber intake, the industry has an opportunity to encourage fiber consumption among those not reaching their daily needs and support those who are with innovative and tasty products.
Overall, consumers should be made more aware of fiber’s important role in the diet, the problems it can solve and the health complications it can prevent. We can arm health professionals (a trusted resource) with the tools and messaging they need to speak to their patients about fiber consumption and encourage them to do so.
While a small group of products designed specifically to meet consumers’ fiber intake exists, there are many foods that already boast significant amounts of fiber without consumers’ awareness. There’s an opportunity for marketers to tout them.
Whole grains are a key to filling the fiber gap in Americans’ diets, and their importance can only grow with further research and communication. With policy makers focusing on fiber in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 process—and the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) spotlight on fiber in its food-label recommendations—these tools will help consumers bridge the gap. With proper guidance from healthcare professionals and the government, consumers can be one step closer to taking advantage of all the benefits fiber has to offer.
Christine Cochran, executive director of the Grain Foods Foundation (GFF), is past president of a Washington-based trade association representing commodity futures exchanges and exchange participants.