Hypnotized by the high-fiber mantra repeated on television, radio and even by her own doctor, Jan Vidmar shopped almost unconsciously. Fiber-rich bread, cereal, even yogurt seemed to spring from the shelves into her cart.
"I go for whatever the television tells me to," the Ashland resident says. "You hear these things — the catch phrases, the high fiber."
And then she heard the truth in a local health and weight-management class. All that fiber Vidmar consumed was faked, says educator Linda Willis. The products: food-industry frauds.
"I felt nutritionally violated," Vidmar says.
"Fake" fiber, Willis says, is one of the most deceptive ploys in food processing, labeling and marketing. Her Balanced Weigh class has exposed the invalid claims around food for two decades. The past five years, however, have seen indigestible substances disguised as fiber slipping into foods and onto labels. Willis decodes them for students who can't believe they were duped.
"People were sitting there with their mouths open," Vidmar says.
Manipulating the numbers attached to nutrition isn't new, says Willis, who holds a doctorate degree in health education. But the minds behind Atkin's Diet products were particularly creative in their bid to redefine carbohydrates, Willis says. Bulking up protein bars and low-carb breads required alternative forms of fiber. That's when "isolated" fibers like inulin and polydextrose started showing up with increasing frequency on food labels.
"Anytime something's isolated, that's a red flag that it's not real food," Willis says.
Derived from chicory root, inulin fits the food scientist's definition of fiber as an indigestible, plant-based substance that moves uninhibited through the body. Yet in contrast to an apple peel, inulin has no nutritional value, Willis says, and therefore no business being on anyone's plate, much less in yogurt or any other food that doesn't naturally contain fiber.
"We're sticking it in Skinny Cow ice cream," Willis says. "If it doesn't normally have fiber in it ... stay away from it."
Real fiber comes from fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, as Willis reminds students with the structure of her Balanced Weigh Pyramid, the foundation of which is bordered by the phrase "fiber, fiber, fiber." It's become one of Willis' mantras, too, but she recites it with good reason.
The average American ingests only about half the amount of fiber needed to effectively regulate digestion and reduce the risk of disease, Willis says. Unlike most weight-loss programs that focus on counting fats and calories, Willis requires her students to count their daily fiber consumption over her seven-week course. Between 25 and 35 grams of fiber is sufficient for most adults, Willis says. Requirements vary according to a person's age and activity level.
The easiest way to increase fiber in one's diet is by simply putting down the peeler. Eating the skins of fruits and vegetables approximately doubles the food's fiber content, Willis says. And since most Americans don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, either, it's an ideal plan.
Identifying and purchasing 100-percent, whole-grain bread is another useful strategy. Bread labeled as multi-grain or just "whole-grain," indicating it's a good source of fiber, likely contains illegitimate additives, Willis says.
"We see a big abuse in bread."
Cereal, she adds, is also commonly filled with fiber imitators. Simple math tells nutritionists that a fixed number of calories per serving can only contain so much natural fiber, Willis says. In the case of cereal, she tells students to avoid cereals that tout more than 10 grams of fiber per serving.
"Fiber One cereal is a perfect example."
When students worry that adding more fiber to their diets could lead to some uncomfortable side effects, Willis assures them that the digestive system adjusts in a few weeks. The approach takes the wind out of food marketers' sails.
"Fake fiber causes even more gas."