To Your Health

Fun facts on fiber

Q. Some of my family's favorite cereals are now "improved" by the manufacturer with increased fiber, but I have a hard time finding the source of fiber in the list of ingredients. Isn't whole grain still the best fiber?

A. Fiber is present in virtually every food derived from plants, though it is not a single substance and certainly not all that is called "fiber" behaves in the same way. Any indigestible carbohydrate is "fiber," some "soluble" and some "insoluble." Cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignan are among the insoluble fibers while gums, mucilages, and pectins are among the soluble fibers. Most foods provide a mixture of both soluble and insoluble fiber, but foods may show up on a list as a source of only one or the other.

Each form of fiber provides different health benefits. The insoluble fiber found in grains seems particularly beneficial for prevention of coronary heart disease. The Food and Drug Administration allows foods that provide as much as 0.75 grams fiber per serving (about 5% of the total recommended daily amount) to claim that they may be able to reduce the risk of heart disease. Soluble fibers, found mostly in fruits and vegetables (foods we don't usually think of as fiber sources), help regulate blood sugar.

In times past, the fiber content of a food was a good indication of how much processing it had undergone. High-fiber foods were generally not as processed or "refined," and thus more nutritious than low-fiber foods. With the understanding that fiber is nutritionally beneficial and that consumers were judging food on the basis of fiber content, savvy food manufacturers began adding fiber to foods. This added fiber is still beneficial but no longer a sign of less processing. There is an exception: If an FDA-approved health claim is made about fiber and heart disease, the soluble fiber content of the product cannot be added or fortified. If a food has been fortified with fiber, the label will probably list psyllium husk, vegetable gum, oat bran, polycarbophil, methylcellulose, or simply bran.

If you want to increase fiber intake it is important to start slowly to avoid any ill effects such as gas, bloating, and cramping, because it takes several weeks for one's digestive system to adapt to increased fiber. It is also important to drink more fluids when you increase fiber intake.

Your kids may cringe at the mere mention of eating more high-fiber foods but there are plenty of ways to sneak fiber-rich foods into your child's menu. In addition to choosing more whole grain breads and pastas, wild or brown rice, salad vegetables, legumes, and vegetables and fruits that can be eaten with skins, top whole-grain pancakes with whole fruit instead of syrup, add crunchy cereal nuggets and whole fruit slices to frozen yogurt, spread nut butter on apple slices for a snack, or mix grated squash with the meat you use for meat loaf or pizza.

A simple way to decide how many grams of fiber your child should be consuming is to add five to your child's age in years. For instance, a 7-year-old should get about 12 grams of fiber each day. A child of 15 should be getting about the same amount of fiber as an adult, 20-25 grams per day, up to a maximum of 50 grams per day.

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