Last year, when the Well+Good team descended upon ExpoWest—the world’s largest natural product convention, protein was the who’s who of macronutrients. But at this year’s ExpoWest, we noticed another ingredient pushing protein aside. Suddenly, being high in fiber—a designation formerly found on extremely uncool foods, like prunes and those snack bars your mom ate—has more caché than being high protein.
Why the shift? Protein helps build muscle and tissues; fiber, of course, is responsible for keeping food moving through your digestive tract, says Shawn Wells, RD, and can help reduce inflammation and promote gut health. But experts say that while both are essential for health, focusing so much on protein may have distracted us from getting what we’re more likely to be deficient in—which, you guessed it, is fiber. “If you look at the data, 95 percent of Americans are getting enough protein,” Sweet Earth Foods co-founder Kelly Swette says. “But the inverse is true for fiber; only 5 percent of Americans are getting enough.” (“Enough” for the average woman is about 25 grams per day.)
While fiber is readily found in whole food sources like vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and lentils, those foods can take longer to prepare—making them not a convenient choice for most of us busy humans, says health coach and Go With Your Gut author Robyn Youkilis. Enter packaged food brands stepping up to the plate and adding fiber to their products, which KIND predicted would be one of the biggest food trends in 2019.
Previously, when brands wanted to add fiber to food, they’d add in often synthetic options like dextrose and inulin. In this wave of fiber-is-the-new-protein products, brands like Sweet Earth are incorporating natural, fiber-rich ingredients (particularly prebiotics, a type of insoluble fiber that feeds your gut bacteria) into their latest offerings instead. A sampling of what they have in the pipeline: a probiotic vegan breakfast burrito, veggie pizza piled with Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and mushrooms on a chia seed and psyllium husk crust, and the forthcoming PoGos, breakfast toaster pastries made with chicory root and acacia gum. “We chose these specific fiber sources because of their known prebiotic benefits,” Swette says. “They also don’t change the texture or taste of the products, which was important to us.”
“Grains are good sources of fiber, so when you stop eating them, you lose that. If you’re cutting out a fibrous source, you need to think about what you’re going to replace it with.” —Brynn Foster, founder of Voyaging Foods
Voyaging Foods is another brand rising in the high-fiber space. Their products get their fiber from taro, a root vegetable native to Hawaii. “I started the company as a mom who needed something that was not only gluten-free, but healthy gluten-free for my children,” founder Brynn Foster says. She explains that in Hawaii, one of the first foods babies are given to eat is pureed taro because it’s so easy to digest. But when she went to the grocery store when her son was teething, all she could find were biscuits made of either corn or potato starch, which are much lower in nutrient density than high-fiber taro. She started making her own taro biscuits, and has since expanded the line to include flours and other baked goods.
While everyone could benefit from fiber, Foster says it’s especially important for people who don’t eat gluten to seek it out. “Grains are good sources of fiber, so when you stop eating them, you lose that,” she says. “Typically, most gluten-free products are made with corn or potato, which are not high in fiber. If you’re cutting out a fibrous source, you need to think about what you’re going to replace it with.”
And just like how adding protein to food is as easy as tossing in a scoop to a smoothie or pancake mix, Bulletproof is coming out with InnerFuel, a high-fiber powder that can be added to food. “InnerFuel is a blend of three clinically-backed prebiotics: acacia fiber, guar fiber, and larch arabinogalactan,” Karen Huh, Bulletproof’s vice president of product management and strategy says. Again with the prebiotics! “Like acacia, guar fiber and larch arabinogalactan selectively nourish the good bacteria in your gut and are easy on the digestive system.” She adds that guar fiber helps keep you full longer, blood sugar steady, and supports regularity. And the larch arabinogalatan is a natural immune-booster that comes from the bark and heartwood of the Larch tree, whose fibers contain free-radical fighting polyphenols.
Of course, fiber is good for you—but going overboard in one sitting can lead to some unpleasant side effects. That’s why Wells and Youkilis say that when increasing fiber, it’s also important to increase the amount of water you’re drinking. “Foods like leafy greens and fruit have the water right in with the fiber, but a lot of packaged foods don’t,” Youkilis says. Adds Wells, “Not getting enough water when you increase your fiber can lead to gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea.” Yeah, not fun.
Both experts all say when experimenting with new types of fiber—such as ones popping into the products hitting shelves—to do it slowly. “If you’ve never had phyllium for example, I would start with a tiny amount—seriously half a teaspoon—to see how your body reacts. Don’t just start by reaching for a product with a cup of it,” Youkilis says.
The bottom line is, most people need more fiber, so the fact that it’s becoming easier to get and more convenient is great news. The key is to increase your uptake slowly—especially when experimenting with new sources—and to stay hydrated.
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