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Is 'Stealth Fiber' Lurking in Your Foods?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
About three years ago, a friend and I were at a natural foods store in the vitamins aisle. I needed more calcium and magnesium, which I take upon my doctor's recommendation to alleviate premenstrual mood swings. While my friend perused the multivitamins, I strolled up and down the aisle, reading labels. Then I spotted inulin, which I'd read was a great source of prebiotics. As a then-frequent sufferer of stress-related GI distress (this was during my "old life"), I was (and still am) a regular consumer of probiotics, those microorganisms found in your gut and in fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi, which can benefit your immune and digestive systems. In short, prebiotics are what feed probiotics. Anything that helps the good bacteria in your gut thrive and flourish sounded like a great product to me. Besides, I had just read that probiotics were the next big thing in nutrition.

I grabbed a jar, shelled out $8.99, and, upon returning home, stirred two tablespoons into water, just as the jar suggested. It tasted mildly sweet but not too bad. Within an hour, I learned the importance of doing your research before buying any supplement! (Who impulse shops at a health food store, I ask?)

My stomach was visibly distended, hard to the touch, and gurgling loudly. I felt as though I had just gorged on Thanksgiving dinner--I was full and bloated. Later on, I had horrible stomach pains that left me doubled over. Forced to cancel my Saturday night plans, I headed to the Internet and read up on inulin, then chucked my jar in the garbage.

A few months ago, I ate a piece of high-fiber flatbread--something I do not eat--for an afternoon snack and ended up with the same symptoms, primarily stomach pains that kept me from a training run! I read the label after the fact, and a type of added fiber was the culprit. Since then, I avoided these ingredients in all quantities. As I recently read, I'm not the only one who has trouble digesting these added fibers.

You might not have heard of inulin, but if you've eaten high-fiber foods--granola and snack bars, breads, crackers, cereals, and even yogurt--that have popped up on the market in the last few years, you've probably eaten a form of it. Inulins, which are a type of carbohydrate considered to be soluble fiber, are increasingly being added to processed foods as "stealth fibers." What's a "stealth fiber"? Any fiber that is added to a food that wouldn't naturally have it. In addition to inulin, products also use polydextrose and maltodextrin, among others.

Found naturally in onions, garlic, jicama, bananas, and wheat, inulin is found in large quantities in chicory root, which makes it a popular source of "stealth fiber" for food companies. It is added to everything from diet fruit drinks to chocolate bars, muffins to breakfast cereals. Some high-fiber snack bars list it as the #1 ingredient, and it is sometimes listed on labels as chicory extract, chicory root powder/fiber, oligosaccharides, or fructans.

With a taste that can range from bland to mildly sweet, food processers use it to replace sugar, fat and flour; it has minimal impact on blood sugar, making it appealing for diabetics. When added to foods, like granola, snack bars, or cookies, it can make them appear healthier than they are.

For some people, the fiber causes no side effects. For others, who either consume large quantities or are sensitive to it like I am, it can cause some mighty unpleasant side effects. Research has shown that inulin may boost the growth of friendly bacteria in the colon, but SparkPeople's Head Dietitian, Becky Hand, warns not to rely on foods like "yogurt fortified with inulin to have the same health benefits as a high fiber diet."

Joanne Slavin, a registered dietitian at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul, recently studied the effects of inulin. After a night of fasting, participants ate a healthy breakfast that included orange juice mixed either with a placebo or with varying amounts of two types of inulin products: native inulin and shorter-chain oligofructose.

"After their 'fiber challenge,' participants were called several times over two days and asked about symptoms such as gas/bloating, nausea, flatulence, stomach cramping, diarrhea, constipation and GI rumbling.

Those that got any dose of inulin generally reported 'mild symptoms'; the highest scores in every symptom except constipation were reported by those who got 10 grams of oligofructose. The findings are in line with previous research that found the short-chain "sweet" inulin causes faster fermentation in the gut leading to more gas and gastrointestinal symptoms.

Flatulence was the most common symptom reported by all subjects who got fiber although symptoms were 'highly variable' among individuals and many subjects did not experience any, the investigators say."

Though considered both a carbohydrate and a type of fiber, inulin isn't treated the same by your body. Carbs are digested and become fuel; insoluble fiber works like a scrub brush to clean the intestines as it passes through the GI tract undigested, while soluble fiber forms a gummy coating on the intestines and helps prevent and slow absorption of various substances, including glucose and cholesterol. Inulin travels undigested to the colon, where the friendly bacteria (probiotics) in your gut feed on them. The probiotics ferment the inulin. The by-product of any type of fermentation is gas, and inulin can also cause diarrhea, bloating, and nausea. Experts say that though added fibers like inulin are called fibers, they don't have the same benefits as the real deal, which is found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

This article clarifies the difference between fiber found in whole foods and added fibers:

"The most recently accepted grouping by the Institute of Medicine divides fiber into two categories: dietary and functional. Dietary is the kind found naturally and intact in oat bran, whole wheat, beans, prunes, peas, and almonds, and other plants. Functional refers to both the synthetic variety like polydextrose as well as naturally occurring inulin, which is extracted and purified from chicory roots."

Bottom line: We all need 25-35 grams of fiber daily, and our dietary experts recommend eating a diet rich in whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables to reach that goal. If you choose to consume products containing inulin or other "stealth fibers," read up on the side effects and limit the quantity.

I'm not a dietitian or health professional, but I can say that I would rather get my fiber the natural way. While you can get eight grams of fiber (about a third of your daily requirement) from sugar-free jelly beans, should you? One SparkPeople member decided fiber-rich jelly beans sounded too good to be true.

Do you eat foods with "added" or "stealth" fiber? Have you ever experienced side effects from inulin or another added fiber?

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Good to know. Never heard of it before! Report
What great and important information. Report
Great info! Thanks! Report
So glad you wrote about this. My doctor wanted me to add more fiber to my diet and suggested a stir in product. (Not sure which one.) I think it was Benefiber. I knew I was sensitive to all products like this. I tried a 1/2 dose. I got the same reaction you did. There went an expensive can! I then found a good tasty high fiber cereal and did that make a difference! It is a bit expensive but I can eat it and do not get bloated. Note: I tried Raisin Brand first but found it did not have enough fiber. I used Spark People to give me the fiber numbers and check the package as well. We eat high fiber veggies and fruit but it usually is not enough/ Report
WOW ... talk about the "snowball' effect... chickory root is a plant just like pretty much all other plants .. most of you are over reacting to this article .. just like the person writing it was using her own experience as "scare tactics" because of her experience.. i believe that unless you have a senstivity to this product it is probably no more harmful than any other plant based fiber .. it is probaby just concentrated like ariticifial fiber, so must be added slowly or watch how much you are injesting .. it is probaby not a problem with the inulin intself, as again, it IS a plant, and the person writing this totally ignores, and in fact i believe, leads to believe it is not plant based .. this is like the 'aspartame" hooey .. and aspartame does NOT cause MS, brain and hormanal damage, deformed babies, etc etc (and i have researched it it A LOT and then some more, and i mean scientific articles, not the hype put out there with NO science behind it) .. i am not saying in the case of this, that adding too much may not cause some symptoms, especially intially, but ANY fiber will cause these symptoms if you are consuming too much, expecially to quickly .. so, like anything, the key is moderation, watch how much of it you are consuming, and don't be part of the people who start spreading "scare hype" that is not based on any scientific backup (even what she quotes as "science" is a very small study and the particpant had mostly small symptoms like you would when adding fiber quickly in any larger quantities) but is just this persons opinion !! yes,it is bette to get natural fiber, but for some that is not even close to realistic so some added fiber supplementation is beneficial .. Report
I have to eat gluten free but for years was using the pysilum type of fiber supplement (not good as it's made from wheat husk). I never had any problem with inulin once I switched and then became diagnosed as Celiac.
Whatever you wind up using, drink a lot of water. If you cut back on the liquids you may become constipated and bloaty.
Remember to add fiber slowly (start with 15g, then try 20g, then try 25g). My docs always perscribe "....as tolerated", so unfortunatley and fortunately, our bodies are all different and there's no one main approach. Report
I believe natural inulin is also found in globe artichokes...which is why some folks have to limit their intake of those wonderful little gems...(or find a hideout for a day or two away from social situations!!) :) Report
Actually I really like a combination of fibers. Some, the soluable are like sponges and some, insoluable are like snowplows. I much prefer having foods like oat bran in my diet and beans to taking meds. The trick is to get your body used to it slowly and gradually. I'm sure some people especially if they have IBS who can't handle large size meals let alone fiber don't ever adapt but for me I've been able to lower my blood sugars and cholesterol by using both fibers in my diet. Report
Do I consume stealth fiber? I don't know but I'm going to check. The only processed food I buy is yogurt, almond milk, one brand of pita pockets, and one brand of millet/flax crackers. I will check the labels later today. I certainly get enough natural fiber without eating them if they contain stealth fiber.

Do they play around with additives just because they can? I can't believe they think they are trying to improve my health. Report
I eat both clean foods in the forms of fresh, organic vegetables, fruits, and clean meats, but I also eat some fiber enhanced, de-fatted, and fake sweetened diet foods and suffer no ill effects. Maybe I'm just hardy. But to me, this post seems to be rather extreme and unnecessarily reactionary. There is nothing bad for you about chicory root. As always, moderation in all things. Any fiber that is not wildly fermented, before digestion, will give you the benefits. Report
I love this article. I found out through trial and error that I am sensitive to gluten, but severely sensitive to inulin. I am a vegetarian who has no probled meeting the fiber recommendations so it wasn't that I introduced more fiber than I was used to eating. I drank a Carnation Instant Breakfast, mixed with coconut milk, and was miserable for about 6 hours. I didn't check the label that the fiber was inulin! Report
I am forever indebted to you. I have developed a wonderful diet and exercise program but could not understand why I was experiencing so much bloating and discomfort. I will read up and make adjustments NOW. BTW...this info is NOT readily available. I did quite a bit of research trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Please spread the word! Report
Thanks for the information. After eating Kashi Go Lean every morning for a few months, I started noticing GI problems. I thought it was a problem with too much fiber, but this explains that it's the added fiber. Too bad though, because I loved the Kashi nutrition stats. Report
Hmmmm... When I lost my first 100 pounds, I had Instant High Fiber oatmeal every morning, and made high fiber Wheat Thins part of my daily nutrition. I don't remember problems, but any of those symptoms might have been part of my normal (fast-food laden) daily experience anyway, so I'm not sure I'd have noticed.

I eat steel-cut oats now, but still have that instant oatmeal and fiber crackers in my cupboard right now. I was already going to try to add more beans into my nutrition for 2011. Now I have more incentive, to get more natural fiber. Thank you for the info!!

Jocelyn Report
Do you think perhaps the problem most people commenting on this are having is actually an adverse reaction to the SUDDEN increase in fiber? You are supposed to slowly up fiber intake whether it's fruits and veggies or fiber one bars...No wonder randomly eating more than your required daily intake of fiber at once, when not used to it, as the writer and commentors such as the one who ate THREE fiber bars...That's a lot of fiber at once! Of course you didn't feel good. However, I suspect if you continued to eat the same amount everyday your body would get used to it. Report
Oh wow - that explains a lot .. .I have some of the same symptoms and my doc chalks it up to IBS... Report
Thanks for this blog. I will try to be more careful in our chosing of foods in the future. Report
i usually do consume whole grains and lots of fruits and veggies, but have been looking for foods with the highest amounts of fiber, without even thinking about where the fiber was coming from. I will definately start to read the ingredients to see if inulin is what is adding the fiber. Report
I read this article back when it was posted and decided to quit eating Fiber One bars. Today we had a nutritionist come and give a 30 minute seminar on healthy eating. However, she did not even know what inulin fiber was and when someone asked about Fiber One bars she said she thought they were good. Thanks to SparkPeople I know what inulin fiber is, and that they are not good for you. Thanks so much SparkPeople. You are the greatest!! Report
Oh my what an eye opener. Thanks for the info Report
What a great article. I need to take a closer look at fiber and how I consume my functional vs dietary fibers. Thanks Report
Great topic Report
Good grief! I just found out the reason for my week-end "runs".... the morning bowl of Kashi cereal that I eat every Saturday and Sunday! I looked it up and inulin is part of the ingredients! that's why this delicious cereal is high in fibre!
I eat very few boxed or processed foods as I watch for added sugar and did not make the connection before reading this article. Many thanks Stepfanie! Report
I was eating a high fiber granola bar daily and experienced some of those symptoms. Cut back to one every few days and am now fine. Report
I thought I had contracted an infection when I had drank municipal water all day before a boil water announcement was made! When my symptoms, mostly flatulence, resolved after I quit eating Fiber One bars, I realized that it must be the chicory root extract. I knew I had problems with inulin but I didn't know that chicory root extract was the same thing until I read this article. Thanks for posting. Report
This article SO explained my daughter's gastro-intestinal problems- we could not figure out what was going on with her, and this totally made sense when I read the ingredients on some of our breads and cereals. Inulin and Nutraflora does not affect me, but totally messes her up! Report
I have that reaction with SORBITOL. What exactly is sorbitol? Report
i use inulin a lot in gel caps or powder added to smoothies and the only symptom i have ever experienced is occasional flatulence. usually after i have forgotten to take it for a few days.My bottle states 1-3 tsp per day as the maximum dosage and to start with 1/2 tsp and gradually work up to 3 if necessary to meet recommended fibre intake.
The writer states that she stirred 2 tablespoons into a glass of water! either the label on the bottle was incorrect or she didn't read it. Inulin is a soluble fiber and absorbs a little more than 100 times its weight in water. so 2 tablespoons would gel 12.5 cups of water..... no mystery why whe was uncomfortable! that water has to come from somewhere. inulin works very well to give a feeling of fullness prior to eating and slows down the blood sugar rise after eating. it can be extrmeely effective if used properly. (Drink plenty of water with it) So called experts should put more effort into their research.

the addition of fibre of any kind to a food is a marketing ploy to make you buy somthing that is not nutritious and feel good about it.
Other marketing gimmicks:
omega 3 added
low fat anything ( just contains more sugar, starch and fillers)
added protein
All designed to meet the needs of the latest diet plan.

We all need to eat REAL food. Report
I am with you, the more natural the better. Report
Thanks for the informatiopn. Report
Wow this is very good info. I eat alot of these products and they don't bother me but my son is very sensitive to it. I thought it was weird since he is fine with real fiber. Now I know why. Report

Oh Wow! thanks much for sharing as this has given me an insight to why I suffered the awful stomach spasms after having cereal with inulins. Report
This is an answer for MRENEEZ: I had & have been using another website to log my meals for the last 3 years: Fitday.com. It has the nutrition information for THOUSANDS of foods, plus the capability of inputting your own from nutrition labels and/or from your own recipes. It will tell you the calories, fat (total, sat., poly & mono), carbs, protein, probably most of the vitamins & minerals AND FIBER content for any food for which you search. I continue to log my meals there, rather than through SparkPeople (I KNOW it's TREASON!!) because I have my own list of "Custom foods" inputted of probably 300+. (There's NO WAY I'm going to do all that work again! Sorry SP!) Anyway, they DO give you the fiber content. Unfortunately, if you're watching your SUGAR level, they DON'T give that. Just thought I'd tell you. (You can also log goals, exercises, journal, LOTS of other stuff! Just not "sharing-type" things, like the blogs, etc.) GOOD LUCK!! Report
A while back I had bought some "chewy bars" that were high fiber (& lower calorie than cookies, etc). They were supposed to replace some of our "not so good" snack choices. One evening, I had 3 of them (I think) & I had gas pains so badly, I thought I was going to die!! I DO remember seeing "chicory root" on the ingredients listing & wondering what that was. NOW I KNOW & I WON'T be buying anymore of those!! THANK YOU SO MUCH for the VERY knowledgeable article!!! Report
Who needs this added stuff anyway? If you eat plenty of fruit and veggies and good wholemeal bread (make it yourself) it's not difficult at all to get to the right amount of fibre every day. But I suppose it helps that I live somewhere where they are more into "proper" food and less into taking stuff out and then re-adding it artificially. Report
Hi, thanks for the interesting article. I am on a higher fiber diet and some timesI I have some of your symptoms. Now I know why--I must be overdoing it from time to time. Good information Report
Thank so much for the helpfull information... Knowledge is power.. even if it is power over your own body!!! Thanks Report
I thought I had a problem with gluten, but after reading this article and doing a little more research, it's inulin!! What a relief! Report
Thank you for this article! These symptoms describe me to a "T" if I eat non natural fiber. I thougth I was crazy and was really frustrated with not being able to eat these grab and go "supposedly" good for me foods. Thanks for clearing the air on this literally in my case. Report
Very interesting. Thanks for the information Report
Getting the recommended fiber, 25-25 grams which is listed above is extremely difficult while adhering to a caloric limit required for weight loss. I keep a list of high fiber foods handy and have been tracking fiber in the Spark Nutrition Tracker and only rarely meet the goal. Now, a recently published study finds that a low carbohydrate diet not only is effective for weight loss but is better for keeping the "good cholesterol" at recommended levels. While attempting to juggle all the statistics, it is easy to see why products that are enriched with fiber are popular. Personally, I try to get my fiber the old fashioned way, but occasionally, buy the fiber enriched products. I also don't beat myself up when I don't get quite enough fiber. Report
Wow...That was a great article. I had no idea. That will make me think twice before buying a "high fiber" diet food!! Thanks! Report
How enlightening! My daughter often suffers from the symptoms you describe and has been to the doctor numerous times trying to find an answer without relief. The symptoms mysteriously come and go and she has not been able to nail down any particular food as the culprit. I'll bet it's this ingredient. I'm forwarding this article to her. Report
I have a terrible time with my GI tract. My doctor told me to try those chewable fiber pills with the inulin--or the activia. Neither did anything. That was a couple of years ago. This spring, in an attempt to eat a high fiber/high protein breakfast, I stumbled on Kashi's Good Friends and GoLean cereals. No inulin and solved most of my problems!! Report
Love this article. I did try the inulin based chewable Fiber Choice tablets and, you're absolutely right, the gas produced was embarassing and also quite painful at times. I even started with a tiny dose so I can't imagine what you went through with 2 tablespoons. Anyway, those symptoms resolved after about two weeks but I still use a very very small dose.. like 1 tablet a day when they recommend two or more.

But, on the energy bars, one of the worst moments of my life was eating a new variety of Balance Bar that had sugar alcohols in it (i.e. xylitols) which also can produce gas, diarrhea, cramping etc. I ate one bar and suffered for days to the point that I called the company and filed a formal complaint. I'm healthy and I couldn't imagine what that bar could do to someone who was more vulnerable. So, when looking at energy bars, don't stop at inulin. Look also at sugar alcohols and beware! They can trigger even worse symptoms than inulin. Report
Wow! I thought that something was "bad" with the flatbread sandwich I ordered, and the Activia yogurt I bought! Now I know it was probably the inulin. Will definitely be reading the label before purchasing. It's not worth the stomach ache! Report
I am one of the people who experience the terrible side effects of inulin. I've tried to explain it to members of my family but they just don't get the difference in the types of fiber. Thank you for writing such an informative article! Report
I have crohn's and really need to go nuts with the fiber. The inulin products have been very effective for me, actually reducing the symptoms described. I need really need to feed the probiotics though to help "squeeze out" the negative bacteria that aggrevate crohn's. If you don't have similar issues, too much probiotics can be a problem as well. Gut bacteria need to live in a balance. A balanced diet with a lot of natural fiber goes a long way towards this. Those of us with gut issues though need to find a different type of balance that works for our individual conditions. Report
With all the added fiber products out there, and trying to follow a low calorie, low fat diet, it is easy to consume the daily recommended 25-35 grams of fiber daily. But through keeping a daily food diary I have noticed that I constantly consume an average of 60 grams of fiber a day. Because of such a high fiber intake, I have noticed that I stay "swollen" (not my abdomen) alot, to the point where I need a RX diuretic, and that the scale will fluctuate 4-10 lbs daily. Though I am regular, it does not affect my regularity. I feel that these are symptoms of too much fiber. I have decided to try and cut back, but I am having a very hard time changing my grocery shopping and finding products that are still low in calories and fat, yet also low in fiber. What are suggestions for people that need to eat LESS fiber? Report
Great information! My mom and I both have experienced these negative side effects of stealth fiber. I hope this new fad in "healthy" foods soon passes. Report
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