Different Ways to Get More Fiber in Your Diet: Does Added Fiber Count?

Hummus
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If you are a typical American eater, you don't get enough fiber. Current guidelines recommend that adults consume at least 28 grams of fiber per day (or 14 grams per 1000 calories). According to many estimates, most of us get only 15 grams per day. As a result, many health-conscious consumers are turning to foods with added fiber like bars, shakes, and cereal to boost daily intake. But is added fiber healthy? And what is added fiber anyway?

What Is Added Fiber?

To get more fiber in your daily diet, you might try to consume foods that naturally contain fiber, like  whole grains, fruits, or vegetables. But many of us also consume foods like snack bars or breakfast cereals with added fiber. 

Before 2016, there were roughly 26 different non-digestible carbohydrates that could be added to food to increase the amount of fiber provided by that product. These added fibers included both synthetic added fibers (also called non-intrinsic fiber) and isolated added fibers (fiber that has been removed from a plant source, also called intrinsic fiber). When added to foods like cereal or baked goods, these added fibers help boost the number fiber grams listed on the Nutrition Facts label.

But in 2016, the FDA made the decision to change its definition of dietary fiber to include only those that have been shown to provide a "beneficial physiological effect on human health." Surprisingly, only seven added fibers made the cut. These added fibers have been shown to lower blood glucose, lower cholesterol, increase satiety (the feeling of fullness that helps you eat less), or improve bowel function.

7 FDA-Approved Dietary Fibers

Aside from naturally occurring fiber, these are the only fibers that meet the FDA's definition of dietary fiber and can boost the number of dietary fiber grams listed on the Nutrition Facts label.

  • Beta-glucan soluble fiber, also called oat bran fiber 
  • Psyllium husk: a soluble fiber that may relieve constipation and help with diarrhea
  • Cellulose: a non-soluble fiber that helps you to feel full, so you eat less
  • Guar gum: a soluble fiber that is often used as a thickener in foods
  • Pectin: a water-soluble fiber often added to jams and jellies
  • Locust bean gum: also known as carob gum, a thickening agent found in sauces and cereals
  • Hydroxypropylmethylcellulose: a soluble fiber that is found in some gluten-free foods

While the technical definition of dietary fiber may not seem important to you as a consumer, you may notice changes when you search grocery store shelves for your favorite high fiber foods.

Some popular forms of added fiber, like inulin (chicory root), are not included on the FDA's new list of approved ingredients. Inulin is frequently added to yogurt, cereals, and other popular foods. Some manufacturers may have to swap ingredients to comply with new guidelines. You may notice a change in the taste or texture of products as a result, and other manufacturers may no longer be able to advertise that their foods are fiber-rich.

Is Added Fiber Healthy?

With all of the fuss about added fiber, you might wonder if these newly scrutinized fiber sources are healthy at all. This is a question that dietitians have been considering for some time. As the number of high fiber products has increased, so has consumer curiosity about their health benefits.

Felicia Spence is a registered dietitian at Hilton Head Health, an all-inclusive weight loss and wellness resort in South Carolina. She says that consumers need to remember that even though the seven approved dietary fibers have demonstrated a health benefit, the approved ingredients are added to processed foods that are not considered healthy.

"These newly defined fibers are added to products like ice cream, sugary cereals, and baked goods, all of which fall under the food category of junk," she says. She goes on to say that processed foods with additives, even those with a health benefit, will never be as nutritious as whole foods.

But other nutrition experts worry that confusion over different types of added fiber may lead to changes in consumer food choices that aren't necessarily optimal. For example, some consumers who are meeting their dietary guidelines with approved or unapproved dietary fiber may no longer choose fiber-rich products and may fall short of the guideline as a result.

Christen Cupples Cooper, EdD, RDN, is an Assistant Professor and Founding Director of the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at the College of Health Professions at Pace University. She explains that the debate isn't necessarily black and white:

"It is not wise to classify either type of fiber—intrinsic fiber, that which is found naturally in foods, and non-intrinsic fiber—as completely 'good' or 'bad.' Individual types of fiber appear to offer their own unique host of benefits. Many in the food industry warn the FDA that consumers who have begun including more high-fiber foods in their diet may stop eating such foods if certain types of “fiber” are removed from the acceptable list. Consumer advocates tend to favor the new definition and list because they believe that it reflects scientific evidence, not corporate interests."

With the new definition of fiber and the resulting disagreement among some experts, many consumers may be left with questions about the best way to get more fiber to reach recommended guidelines.

How to Get More Fiber in Your Diet

Both Cooper and Spence agree that it is best to get fiber from whole natural foods. "I recommend that clients seek out foods with naturally-occurring fiber sources first—that means whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables—whenever possible," says Cooper. "This helps to ensure a diet not only plentiful in fiber, but also in other complex carbohydrates, healthful fats, vitamins, and minerals."

Spence agrees, adding that intrinsic fiber is still the best way to fulfill your fiber recommendation. But both nutrition experts say that a little bit of extra fiber from quality, high-fiber processed foods can provide an extra kick when needed. 

To meet your dietary fiber goals, Spence suggests a three-pronged approach.

  1. Switch to 100 percent whole grain products when it comes to bread and pasta and eat whole grains like oats for breakfast.
  2. Eat a vegetable or fruit every time you have an eating occasion whether it’s a meal or a snack.
  3. Eat beans every day. It can be in the form of hummus, mixed in a soup or stew, or replace meat with tofu or tempeh.

A Word From Verywell

The discussion about the different types of added fiber is ongoing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will continue to evaluate various non-digestible carbohydrates and may update the list of approved dietary fibers in the months or years to come, so check back to see updated guidelines and insights from experts as new recommendations and evidence becomes available.

Sources:

Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD. Update on Fiber Supplements — What Dietitians Need to Know. Today's Dietitian. February 2017.

Jessica Levings, MS, RDN FDA Changes Fiber Definition Today's Dietitian. August 2017.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and Answers for Industry on Dietary Fiber.  Last Updated: 12/13/2017.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.  Science Review of Isolated and Synthetic Non-Digestible Carbohydrates. November 2016.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. Medline Plus. Dietary Fiber. Updated November 2017.