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Understanding fiber means looking beyond the nutrition label
By Don Mauer | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 9/3/2008 12:05 AM

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There's a dietary fiber loophole in Nutrition Facts labeling that's causing some consumer confusion.

Before understanding what's happening, you'll need to know some fiber basics. There are two types of dietary fiber, sometimes listed as subcategories under dietary fiber on Nutrition Facts labels: insoluble and soluble.

Almost all vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts contain both insoluble and soluble fiber; many grains and most nuts contain a higher proportion of insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber may lower the risk of heart disease.

Studies indicating insoluble fiber's possible powers were conducted on foods that naturally contain those fibers or foods with so-called "intact" fiber. More about that in a moment.

Soluble fiber, like that in oat bran and barley, appears to help lower cholesterol; you probably knew that from oatmeal ads. And, those cholesterol-lowering studies were also done with foods containing intact fiber. Most dietary researchers agree that food (not supplements) provide the very best source for dietary fiber. And, that's exactly the issue. Researchers still are not sure if a food's other nutrients, like phytoestrogens, antioxidants, lignins, vitamins and minerals, aren't part the reason those foods help reduce heart disease risk factors, lower cholesterol or reduce diabetes incidence.

This would be a nonissue if we consumed only foods naturally high in soluble and insoluble intact fiber. But, today, not all foods at the supermarket contain "intact" fiber. Food manufacturers started adding "isolated" fiber (like inulin, maltodextrin and polydextrose) to products that never had natural fiber. You can find fiber in water, plain yogurt, filtered juices and even ice cream.

Since Nutrition Facts labels don't have to indicate whether a food's fiber content is intact or isolated, we have no way of ascertaining the product's true nutritional value.

Case in point: Fiber One cereal contains 14 grams of fiber in a 1-ounce serving. Based on the ingredient list, that fiber seems to come from the primary ingredients: corn bran, whole grain wheat and wheat bran - all intact fiber.

Compare that One Chewy Bars with 9 fiber grams. Much of the fiber in that bar comes from its lead ingredient: chicory root extract or inulin, a soluble fiber.

The soluble fiber in oat bran is also viscous, which researchers believe makes it able to lower cholesterol. Inulin isn't viscous so it probably does not have the same healthy effect as oat bran's soluble, viscous fiber.

If that weren't confusing enough, some food manufacturers use brand names to imply fiber content. Kellog's Original All-Bran cereal delivers 10 grams of intact fiber per serving, all of it coming from wheat bran. However, Kellog's All-Bran Drink Mix contains 10 fiber grams from the added isolated fiber polydextrose. There's no bran in the mix, but you wouldn't know that from it's name.

Who knows what if any value comes from added, isolated fibers? To cover your fiber bases, the best bet is to consume enough whole foods - vegetables, fruit, grains and nuts - to get 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day. That way you're sure you're getting what you need to keep heart disease, cholesterol and diabetes at bay.

Try this recipe: This easy-to-make tuna salad has all the right ingredients for flavor, texture and color as well as loads of intact fiber. Hard to believe something so good can also be so healthy.

Don Mauer appears Wednesdays in Food. He welcomes questions, shared recipes and makeover requests for your favorite dishes. Address them to Don Mauer, Daily Herald Food section, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006 or don@theleanwizard.com.