Josh Sosland
Fiber accounts for less than 5% of the weight of a slice of whole wheat bread, yet it is difficult to describe the mess the Food and Drug Administration has created in its efforts to establish a definition for dietary fiber.

Because fiber intake has fallen far short of government recommendations for decades, food manufacturers, especially grain-based foods producers, have incorporated fiber into a myriad of food products over the past 15 years. Ingredient suppliers have introduced a range of fibers aimed at helping formulators add fiber economically without compromising flavor and texture profiles.

As part of the first major change to the Nutrition Facts Label since the early 1990s, the F.D.A. in 2016 announced a definition for dietary fiber that would disqualify most of these added fibers. With few exceptions, only substances “where the fiber is intact in the plant when added to the food” would qualify going forward.

The change from a method of measurement that appeared to work well for 30 years was prompted by scientists at the F.D.A. who noted the lack of a definition at present and allegations that current rules allow the listing as dietary fiber non-digestible carbohydrates without clinically proven beneficial effects.

The agency has defined dietary fiber as “non-digestible carbohydrates and lignin that are intrinsic and intact in plants; or added (isolated or synthetic) non-digestible carbohydrates that have been determined by F.D.A. to have a physiological benefit.”

The F.D.A. is requiring fiber manufacturers to submit a citizen petition to prove “physiological effects of added non-digestible carbohydrates that are beneficial to human health.”

It is the standard of proof of human health benefits and the requirement that a citizen’s petition be filed for most added fibers that has caused consternation across the grain-based foods industry.

Because natural and artificial fiber are chemically the same, the baking industry has vigorously opposed the new definition, saying that defining fiber by its physiological effect would be unprecedented and inconsistent with its definitions of all other macronutrients, including total carbohydrates, fats and protein.

Bakers believe dietary fiber used in bakery products provide beneficial physiological effects and have suggested alternative definitions, including one from CODEX Alimentarius, describing dietary fiber as carbohydrate polymers with beneficial physiological effects “as demonstrated by generally accepted scientific evidence to competent authorities.”

Far from artificial, laboratory created substances, many of the ingredients used in bakery products as fiber are hulls, peels or husks separated from plants and mechanically processed. Many of these fibers, including corn fiber (bran), oat fiber (hull), soy fiber (hull), wheat fiber (straw), orange peel, inulin and others have been reviewed and accepted by Health Canada but would not fall within the F.D.A.’s new dietary fiber definition.

All told, the F.D.A. in its final fiber guidance issued last month approved only 6 isolated or synthetic fibers. That is out of more than 30 fibers F.D.A. knew at the time have been declared on Nutrition Facts Labels.

Pleading its case, the American Bakers Association in April 2017 offered a cascading series of alternatives to the F.D.A. proposal, beginning with the revocation of the definition or the adoption of a less onerous alternative.

Amid the uncertainty about what ingredients will qualify as dietary fiber going forward, food companies are left with numerous unpalatable options. As matters stand, most of the popular substances currently used to add dietary fiber will need to be removed or replaced. If left in place, the dietary fiber content of these substances may no longer be declared, and associated health claims would need to be removed.

While the A.B.A. continues to press the F.D.A. for major changes to the rule, bakers have begun conferring with suppliers about reformulation strategies and about whether currently used fibers have strong prospects for gaining approval based on the new F.D.A. guidelines.

The deadline for compliance with the new rule is July 2018, though the F.D.A. has indicated the date will be extended until January 2020. It is hoped wholesale changes may still be possible in this well-intended but utterly counterproductive regulation.