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Fiber: The Hero American Nutrition Deserves

By Jack Becker

Metropolis has Superman. Gotham has Batman. Could America’s nutrition hero be fiber?

Since nutrition can be complicated, consumers need rules of thumb to make more informed decisions without comprehensive nutrition education.

We already have these for what not to eat: the villains of American diets — too much added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. But we need to be equally clear in identifying a hero. Enter fiber.

Foods that are high in fiber are often nutrient-dense and healthy. So, if someone is struggling to figure out whether a food is healthy, fiber content could be a useful shortcut.

Villains and Heroes of American Diets

Knowing what not to eat and knowing what to eat are two different battles.

The villains of American diets are well-established. The fourth guideline in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for 2020-2025 is to “[l]imit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.”

This guideline is fairly clear. Even with the ambiguities of what “limited” and “higher” mean, having the touchstones of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium is key. Nutrition Facts labels list percent Daily Value of these. If a product has 200% Daily Value of added sugars, it’s probably not the best for health.

And, in some locales, policymakers developed warning labels for products with high amounts of added sugars and sodium, which offer simple, clear communication to consumers.

Unfortunately, guidelines on what to eat are not as simple. For example, the third of the Dietary Guidelines reads, “Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.”

If a consumer is looking at a product, how much does this guideline help them make an informed decision? It’s a holistic standard that properly reflects the complexity of nutrition, but “food group needs” and “nutrient-dense foods” are not that helpful in making a game-time decision.

To be fair, the USDA is in a tough position. Initiatives to simplify the calculations, such as a traffic light system, have been criticized for being too reductive and inaccurately categorizing food. Keeping track of calories, as mentioned in the guidelines, has faced similar critiques.

This leads to a big problem. It only takes a second to recognize a nutrition villain, but citizens in peril have to go through a multi-factored holistic evaluation before calling a hero. In the heavily paraphrased words of Bonnie Tyler, “[American nutrition] needs a hero . . . [it’s] gotta be [simple], and it’s gotta be [visible].”

Fiber Saves the Day

Maybe fiber is that hero.

Fiber is commonly known as a nutrient that helps with regular bowel movements, and it does help with digestive issues, but it does so much more. Fiber can help lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar levels, and control weight. Health benefits associated with a high-fiber diet include reducing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and diverticular disease. Some studies also suggest that increased fiber consumption may help reduce the risk of dying from cancer.

The Dietary Guidelines note that over 90 percent of women and 97 percent of men do not meet recommended fiber intake levels, which vary from 22-34 grams depending on sex and age. From a historical standpoint, Americans’ average consumption of 15 grams of fiber daily pales in comparison to our ancestors’ estimated 100 grams per day.

There are already great pushes to emphasize fiber consumption and to “Make Fiber Cool” for these health reasons. But fiber has an additional benefit — it can be used as shortcut to roughly judge the health value of a food.

Nutrient-dense foods like whole wheat grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, lentils, and beans are all great sources of fiber. Unhealthier foods that Americans may overconsume, such as ground meat, cheese, and refined grains, are low in fiber. The general correlation between fiber content and health value seems stronger for fiber than for any other macronutrient or micronutrient listed on the Nutrition Facts label.

For a consumer choosing between whole wheat pasta and white pasta, fiber content could be the decision-making hero they’ve been waiting for. Unlike a multi-factored holistic evaluation, fiber provides a simple answer.

Using fiber as a shortcut for health value does have plenty of flaws. First, it’s not perfect. Healthy foods (like eggs) may have no fiber, while unhealthy foods may have abundant fiber. Second, and relatedly, consumer focus on fiber would likely lead to more fiber-fortified foods (meaning that fiber is added to a product with no natural fiber), many of which may not actually be that healthy. Third, fruits, vegetables, and similar foods are already commonly known as healthy and some don’t even have Nutrition Facts labels. Consuming too much fiber can also have negative consequences, including digestive issues and potentially inhibiting micronutrient absorption.

These are accurate critiques. Ideally, Americans would receive comprehensive nutrition education and be able to fully analyze dietary decisions. But, until that happens, imperfect shortcuts like fiber content could help a lot. Think of fiber as a friendly neighborhood Spiderman, simply and visibly giving people directions and stopping thieves. (We try to provide equal representation for the DC and Marvel universes.) A team of heroes might be necessary to save American nutrition, but fiber could at least save the day.

Unlike other shortcuts like warning labels and traffic lights, fiber is already listed on Nutrition Facts labels. There are no structural changes needed. Instead, it may be time for USDA to put a temporary cape on fiber and bring America the nutrition hero it deserves.

Jack Becker

Jack is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former student fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center. He thanks you for reading this and hopes you have a great day!

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