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Is 'Stealth Fiber' Lurking in Your Foods?


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  238 comments   :  128,283 Views

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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    Stemon, you did what I have been wanting to do with the Fiber One bars - write to the company! I loved them when I first tried them and then I read the ingredients list and found the magic ingredient I do my best to avoid - HFCS. I have stopped buying them since then. How disappointing that the best they could do was to be sorry. - 8/4/2010   12:24:57 AM
  • 187
    This explains my hubby's reaction to Fiber One bars! Now I believe his complaints and I won't buy them again. - 8/3/2010   11:35:58 PM
    Great article -- explains a lot! I LOVE the taste of Fiber One chocolate chip snack bars, but ....let's just say they don't love ME. We call them "Fart Bars" at my house! :) Having better luck with the South Beach Fiber Fit bars -- 1 a day -- Apple Cinnamon is good. - 8/3/2010   11:25:44 PM
    Someone made the statement "Please, be more aware, inform your readers that these supplements are not tested or monitored by the FDA and can be harmful to your health, "
    Have you not given any thought to how many side effects are resulting from the drugs that ARE approved by FDA? Scares the Heck out of me. Nothing is safe anymore with all the money grabbers in the market today. - 8/3/2010   11:10:31 PM
    I love the effects that inulin has on me. I take inulin daily and it helps me very much with my digestive problems. But everyones body is different I suppose. - 8/3/2010   10:42:17 PM
  • 183
    Wow every so often I hit a day where I suffer from TERRIBLE stomach pain, gas, and bloating. I had my gall bladder checked and it was fine. Next time it happens, I'm going to research every food I've eaten to see if it contains "stealth fiber" like inulin. Thanks so much for the information!
    - 8/3/2010   10:29:34 PM
  • ROOTY1
    Thank you Thank you! You have shed light on a puzzle I've had for a while - I couldn't figure out why foods like Activia yoghurt, Fiber One Bars and even Vita Top Muffin Tops, severely constipate me, But now I think I know why. Othe foods with naturally occurring fiber do not affect me this way. So far I have just avoided the products named above - however since I've read your article I will read labels more carefully and avoid any products that contain inulin. Again, thank you so much for sharing what you have discovered. - 8/3/2010   7:48:55 PM
  • 181
    I eat as much natural fiber as I can get in along with fiber supplements. I have never had a proble - 8/3/2010   7:28:03 PM
  • 180
    OMG! Thank You! I wondered what was wrong with my gut!! Now I know.
    I am returning to insoluble fiber supplementation with my high fiber diet. - 8/3/2010   6:27:58 PM
  • 179
    I realized that I had a problem with Chicory Root a couple of years ago, I'm amazed to hear how many others do to. Thanks for the blog. - 8/3/2010   5:43:33 PM
  • 178
    No problem here with fiber..Heck I live on a high fiber diet & high proteins..
    - 8/3/2010   5:31:11 PM
  • 177
    No problem here with fiber..Heck I live on a high fiber diet & high proteins..
    - 8/3/2010   5:31:11 PM
    Very good article. I will have to start observing more closely what is some of my snacks.. - 8/3/2010   4:47:04 PM
  • 175
    This article should a warning against taking an herbal supplement or drug not recommended by your doctor, not a listing of the side effects of stealth fibers. I am horrified that an education woman, such as Ms. Romine, and by extension Spark would not highlight the dangers of "grabbing a jar" and ingesting the products without first consulting a doctor. People DIE from doing this. Please, be more aware, inform your readers that these supplements are not tested or monitored by the FDA and can be harmful to your health, as Ms. Romine discovered. Be an advocate for a healthy lifestyle by educating your readers, not by setting an example of what NOT to do. - 8/3/2010   4:01:53 PM
    I have been on Weight Watchers since January, therefore I have used fiber one bars as my go to sweet snack. I def. enjoy them, there are days they cause a little discomfort but for the most part I have gotten used to them. I have tried to get the recommended amount of fiber a day but unless it is written in front of me (nutrition facts) I don't know how much is in things so I get most of my fiber through foods w/ the inulin in them:( Is there a place w/ correct nutrition info for the amount in certain fruit, veggies and breads?? - 8/3/2010   3:33:39 PM
  • 173
    Thanks for the great article now I know why my stomach hurts anytime I eat a WW Yogurt. Yikes I'm going to add this to my cell phone list for when I go grocery shopping that way I won't waste money! - 8/3/2010   3:13:44 PM
  • 172
    What great information, It seems like moderation is the key to all things, here. I am supposed to have a half cup of all bran or Fiber one cereal once a day, I have not noticed any problem, I don,t always eat it every day either.
    I sure do try and get fiber in my diet tho. - 8/3/2010   2:54:15 PM
  • 171
    Thanks for this very helpful information. I have had these symptoms before after eating some "high fiber" foods. I just looked up the ingredients for Vitamuffins, one of the foods that causes my symptoms, and inulin is listed. Now I know what to look for. - 8/3/2010   2:11:41 PM
  • 170
    Yikes I just went through my cabinets and refrigerator and found it in a lot of my high fiber foods. Too bad, these products made it so much easier when packing lunches or snacks to keep in the car. Thanks for the information - 8/3/2010   1:34:33 PM
    I'm of the opinion that if something is added to a food that is not "found naturally in.....", Don't eat it. Just natural healthy foods as mentioned in the article--whole grains, fruits & vegetables--are fine with me. I'm 72, have been eating just plain food all my life, and I haven't died yet. My health is excellent, in addition! - 8/3/2010   1:24:45 PM
    hmmm, now you have made me very curious. I will have to watch for this. - 8/3/2010   1:22:13 PM
    WOW, what an eyeopening article. this is one of the reasons I LOVE Sparkpeople. tons of rock solid realistic information. thank you again for a great piece of work. - 8/3/2010   1:17:48 PM
    And I thought I was allergic to gluten. - 8/3/2010   12:57:46 PM
  • 165
    Very interesting article. I will watch for inulin when I go shopping. - 8/3/2010   12:54:43 PM
  • SKYLARK4477
    Good article. Very informative. - 8/3/2010   12:50:53 PM
  • 163
    I am a big fan of the Fiber One products, but this article has opened my eyes to the fact that the Fiber One is the reason I've been gassier since starting my "clean eating"... I have 4 tubs left... since it's expensive, I will consume them, and then stop the Fiber One craze... thank you for this information! - 8/3/2010   12:34:21 PM
    Inulin actually has some wonderful properties---esp for diabetics and anyone wanting to lose weight. It helps balance blood sugar levels and curbs sugar cravings. It helps spread the absorption of carbs over a longer stretch of time. Sounds to me like manufacturers are taking advanage of a GOOD thing and overloading their products with it. Inulin is in my meal replacement/protein shake powder that I use everyday, and I have no problems. So, don't count out ALL inulin when added in appropriate quantities. (And I have a background in nutrition.) - 8/3/2010   12:28:08 PM
  • 161
    I've done a lot of reading on inulin lately as well and determined that is where my source of gas was coming from! When I don't eat the fiber infused granola bars, I am not afflicted with as much gas. - 8/3/2010   12:24:41 PM
    Thanx for sharing - 8/3/2010   12:19:39 PM
    While I don't doubt that there can be many problems with inulin and other added fibers, I hope that no one is confused and thinking that these problems arise because these added fibers seem to be mainly soluble instead of insoluble. Soluble fiber is very important for digestive and heart health. Many people with GI problems NEED lots of soluble fiber every day, and should actually avoid having too much insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber is just a bulk forming agent. Some added fibers may ferment very quickly (causing the gas, bloating, and discomfort), but natural soluble fibers do not. In fact, insoluble fiber from natural sources tends to cause more gas than soluble fiber from natural sources.
    I just wanted to make sure that no one got the wrong impression about soluble fiber =) - 8/3/2010   12:18:42 PM
  • 158
    Thank you so much for this article. In the middle of reading it, I got out a box of Fiber One bars from my cabinet. Low and behold, the first ingredient was chickery root!!

    This explains ALOT!! LOL!!! - 8/3/2010   12:09:36 PM
  • 157
    Thank you so much for this article! I've been dealing with weird digestive problems my whole life but, after a couple years of doctors and tests when I was young, just decided to watch what I ate. I've been wondering lately if I have some sort of wheat intolorence, but couldn't figure out why some products bothered me when others didn't. Yogurt and milk have always given me these symptoms (Activia was the worst!) but not cheese. Now I can be more aware of the inulin/chicory root in the products I eat and maybe narrow down the issue!! - 8/3/2010   11:58:16 AM
    Great article!!! One comment - Not all soluble fiber are the same. You may want to look to polydextrose if you would like to enrich or incrementally increase daily fiber intake. Unlike some other fibres and prebiotic ingredients, polydextrose is uniquely well tolerated, up to 90 grams per day. This is a result of polydextrose’s slow and sustained fermentation throughout the colon, meaning that it does not give rise to the rapid gas production and lactic acid accumulation associated with rapidly fermented fibres and prebiotics, factors which can cause gastric discomfort and laxation. Sustained fermentation along the colon also means that polydextrose provides health benefits from the proximal to the distal end of the colon without discomfort - 8/3/2010   11:19:36 AM
    Liked the article. I have tried to eat the Fiber One products and have had the same problem with bloating, gas and stomach pains. I now have some All Bran Bran buds with my yogurt in the morning and have no problems with that. - 8/3/2010   10:55:48 AM
    I have had exactly the same problem with inulin - I had no idea it was a common problem! Thanks for this informative article x - 8/3/2010   10:54:08 AM
  • 153
    My dad is diabetic, and I'll buy him sugar-free or reduced sugar candy for special occasions, and the Fiber One bars on a regular basis. No matter how much or how often I warn him, he'll eat way too much (like the whole big box of chocolates or 4 Fiber bars in one night) and then can't understand why he then spends the night in the bathroom! Moderate amounts of the sugar alcohols and substitutes or "stealth fiber" don't bother me or my dad, but too much leads to spending time bonding with the bathroom. All things in moderation!

    I try to eat one Fiber bar each day for the fiber, and usually I'm fine with 2 bars in one day. But if I for some reason try to eat 3, yikes! Not a good day after that. They're handy to keep around for when I'm busy at work, have to go to the library after work to finish my grad school homework or have errands to run, but too many of them will wreak havoc with my digestive system. And given that I had my gallbladder removed 3 months ago, I don't need anything else that might upset the delicate balance of my system.

    Great article, thanks for sharing. - 8/3/2010   10:45:18 AM
  • 152
    I have been wondering why my homemade bran muffins didn't have the same flatulent effects as a high-fiber granola bar! Thanks for the very useful information. - 8/3/2010   10:40:44 AM
  • 151
    I first discovered inulin a couple of years ago. I kept getting bad gas and I inspected the label on a new food and discovered inulin. I researched inulin and learned it was the culprit. A little inulin once and a while is okay, but two days in a row and I get horrible gas. The easiest way to find inulin is if a food has more fiber than you would expect, read the label and you will probably find inulin. I avoid it! - 8/3/2010   10:39:15 AM
    This was one better than great article. I have the same problem with parsnips, another deep root plant. This article is of great benefit to me. - 8/3/2010   10:26:29 AM
  • LMBARK315
    Wow, this article helped me so much! This explains the symptoms I was having. Some yogurts have inulin and I tried a few. They left me feeling awful! - 8/3/2010   10:02:43 AM
  • 148
    Very interesting article! I've had on and off issues with my gut. I've done some research on it but need to do more. Through my own experience I know that some ingredients I can tolerate in a certain combination but when they are combined differently, they bother me. That could be why some products with inulin are bothersome while others aren't.

    Also, I've looked in fructose malabsorption. People with fructose malabsorption can have problems with fructans too. Inulin is a fructan.

    It may be that some products have higher amounts of inulin that others and that people can tolerate a certain amount but not too much. That could be why some products don't cause an issues while others do.

    That's why I prefer whole ingredients that I combine myself into a recipe or a processed product that has a shorter list of ingredients if at all possible. - 8/3/2010   9:49:10 AM
  • 147
    This was very enlightening! It may definitely help me. Thanks! :) - 8/3/2010   9:28:46 AM
  • 146
    Interesting article. I take a fiber supplement. Metamucle Clear and Natural which used to be Fiber Sure and it works great with no problems. I lost about 53 lbs and weigh 110. I just can't consure 25-35 g of fiber. I can't eat that much food! I tried the Benefiber and it was discusting!!! I've tried almost every fiber snack bar there is out there. I loved the Curves peanut chocolate bar, but they discontinued them :( I tried the Fiber Plus Peanut Chocolate ones and had severe stomach problems with migraines. It resembled food poisoning, but only happened with one out of each box. It's hard to find something that has suitable protein and fiber with not more than 120 calories and outrageous carbs.. I eat veggies and fruits everyday, but just can't get in all the fiber I need, so a supplement is necessary.

    Good luck everyone!

    rumbamel - 8/3/2010   9:20:37 AM
    This was very interesting to me. I was wondering why I would get so much gas after eating the high fiber bars. Now I know!! Thanks for the information. - 8/3/2010   9:20:33 AM
  • 144
    I have all the same symptoms ... including gas that is so painful, it leaves me curled up on the floor.

    I get these pains from eating things like energy/protein bars and high-fiber foods like Kashi cereal. I don't know if it's inulin, but high fiber foods cause me trouble. - 8/3/2010   9:18:12 AM
  • 143
    Good article! I’ve never even heard of inulin, but I will definitely be on the lookout for it now. I have issues with not getting enough fiber in my diet even though I eat pretty healthy. I found out I wasn’t getting enough fiber when I started tracking my food in the Nutrition Tracker and was consuming way less then the daily requirement of 25-35 grams.
    To up my fiber intake, I once made the mistake of having Fiber One cereal for breakfast and a Fiber One bar for a mid-morning snack. Not a good idea! My stomach sounded like a Star Wars movie. Also, my stomach got so bloated I thought an alien was going to burst out at any second. This happened at work which was less then convenient.
    I love Fiber One products, but I know now, as with everything, moderation is key!
    - 8/3/2010   9:13:43 AM
  • 142
    great information. I currently include double fiber bread, fiber one yogurt and kashi cereals in my diet. I will be looking at the label going forward..Thanks - 8/3/2010   9:08:34 AM
  • 141
    Boy I am wondering how far off my gastro was on this line item! I am now making my own homemade yogurt! for several reasons:
    -its easy
    -its inexpensive
    -its natural
    -I can test its effectiveness by eating some in the a.m., and then in the p.m. and adding in natural fiber products like fresh fruit and cereal grains.
    -supplement that by making 5 veggies a day my goal, and 2 fruits
    -eat whole grain breads/grains for appropriate percentage of simple carbs
    We shall see; I HAVE gotten the South Beach and CLIF bars; I use them when I am not able to get home and don't want to go to a fast food place. I will have to control the other variables to see what effect these may be having on me!! - 8/3/2010   9:03:40 AM
    Wikipedia has some good information "While inulin is a versatile ingredient, it also has health benefits. Inulin increases calcium absorption[3] and possibly magnesium absorption,[4] while promoting the growth of intestinal bacteria. In terms of nutrition, it is considered a form of soluble fiber and is sometimes categorized as a prebiotic. Due to the body's limited ability to process polysaccharides, inulin has minimal increasing impact on blood sugar, and—unlike fructose—is not insulemic and does not raise triglycerides,[5] making it considered suitable for diabetics and potentially helpful in managing blood sugar-related illnesses. The consumption of large quantities (in particular, by sensitive or unaccustomed individuals) can lead to gas and bloating, and products that contain inulin will sometimes include a warning to add it gradually to one's diet." I think the gradual has been ignored by some ~ but this is potentially good for diabetics. - 8/3/2010   9:00:10 AM
  • 139
    This has happened to me!
    One day my DH came home from health food store with 'vital supplements.'
    I should have listened to my instincts...
    I took the supplements 2 days.. and it took me almost a week to return to
    my 'normal' system health.
    It isn't worth it.
    Just another scam to make money off of vulnerable people. - 8/3/2010   8:59:30 AM

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