The phenomenal success of low-carb products in 2003 left little doubt among food companies that the low-carb era may be here for a while. Fiber, in both soluble and insoluble formats, long has been a darling of the health community, but with its carbohydrate association, will it now receive "unfavorable" status? Can consumers reduce their carbs and still get their fiber, too?

The push for fiber consumption is rooted in scientific evidence that clearly has defined its health benefits. Established advantages include reducing cholesterol, regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the incidence of diverticulitis and maintaining peristalsis (gut muscle movement) to reduce constipation. Evidence supporting the role of bioactive (or functional) fibers in gut health, blood glucose and insulin management and, more recently, in calcium absorption increases the rationale behind fiber promotion.

Fiber-like sources in the diet include fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and ingredients derived from them such as pectin, oat bran, psyllium and resistant starch. Bioactive fibers are derived from common sources such as chicory root and Jerusalem artichokes, and appear on ingredient labels in various formats, including inulin, oligofructose and fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS). Evidence presented by Joanne Lupton Ph.D., who chaired a panel on the definition of dietary fiber, suggested that less than 10% of any classified population group consumed more than the daily suggested intake of fiber. This means that the push for fiber is still on.

Where Science and Marketplace Meet

While the healthful news about fiber is not new, U.S. fiber consumption still lags. This begs the question: Are fiber-rich products attractive for both company and consumer? Querying Mintel International Ltd.’s (Chicago) Global New Product Database (GNPD) between 2001 and 2003, using the phrase “added fiber,” indicates that this category does remain attractive. (See chart “Added Fiber.”)

Of the 50 new products introduced in the U.S. in 2003, 19 (38%) were in the breakfast cereals category. Globally (excluding the U.S.), 87 (19%) fiber-added products were released in the same category. New breakfast cereal “added fiber” launches include organic and conventional products, as well as formulations with newly “in-vogue” ingredients spelt and amaranth. Both ingredients boast high-protein, high-fiber and low-gluten nutritional characteristics, timely inclusions in a marketplace that has a growing demand for products addressing Celiac Disease. Nature’s Path Foods (Blaine, Wash.) introduced Organic Spelt Flakes Cereal, describing spelt as “an easily digestible grain that is high in protein and fiber, but low in gluten content.” Nu-World Amaranth (Naperville, Ill.) launched organic, gluten-wheat and dairy-free Berry Delicious Hot Cereal, with 3g of fiber per serving.

Low Carbs and Fiber, too?

What are companies doing about fiber in the low-carb era? The GNPD demonstrated low-carb and high-fiber can be a marriage, in certain categories. San Demas, Calif.-based Organic Milling introduced Hi-Low cereal, a high-protein, low-carb product with 5g of fiber per serving, positioned for weight loss, weight management and healthy living. Carbsense Foods (Hood River, Ore.) launched Low-Carb Granola Cereal, which provides 25g of fiber (soybeans, almonds, oat fiber, polydextrose) and 4g of net carbs per serving. The company also introduced Soy Grain Multi-Grain Tortilla Chip with "Half the Carbs and All the Flavor!" at 4g of dietary fiber/serving. And pets do not miss out, either. Hills Pet Nutrition (Topeka, Kan.) introduced Prescription Diet Feline M/D with added fiber, a mix of low-carbohydrate and high-protein components that "will help your cat lose weight!"

But fiber and the low-carb movement are conflicted cousins. Good sources of fiber—fruits, vegetables and legumes—often are good and healthful sources of both carbohydrates and micronutrients. Health professionals lament they are seeing the fall out as consumers shun fiber because of its carbohydrate relative. For processors, however, this presents an opportunity in that low-carbohydrate / high-fiber products can be formulated using low-glycemic ingredients such as resistant starches, additives analyzed as dietary fiber and food components from nuts, certain whole grains and fruits and vegetables that contribute relatively little digestible carbohydrate.

At a Functional Level

Using the GNPD to conduct a search using the keywords "FOS, bioactive fibers, inulin and oligosaccharides," the results showed U.S representation in global new product introductions increased from 19% in 2001 to 23% in 2003. Comparing U.S. new product launches to global launches could be comparing apples to oranges; however, some reported categories in international markets show higher new product volume than the U.S. Do these functional components have broader acceptance outside of the U.S.? An informal query among U.S. nutrition practitioners suggested the public may not yet have reached a level of familiarity or comfort with the concept of prebiotic components that encourage the growth of healthful gut bacteria.

According to Dennis Gordon, R.D., most allopaths (conventional practitioners) and clients do not know what prebiotics or probiotics are. Gordon adds, "find that clients never understand why we care about the number of healthy vs. unhealthy bacteria in the colon. It is too remote of a concept." Gordon then highlights his own struggles in finding products in the U.S. marketplace that contain sufficient FOS to yield "practical' results. Gordon states most of the studies he has seen, 'have found that 4g [daily] produces a maximum benefit in changing the ratio of healthy to unhealthy bacteria (about a five-fold change in two weeks).'

In the U.S. market, all recent reported new confectionery launches were positioned as low-carb/no-carb. All snack launches in this search were bar products. Strength Systems USA (Bloomfield, Conn.), released an extension to its Triple Delicious High Protein Bar line. This was the only product in the snack category touting low-carb appeal. In the health care category, CNS Inc. (Eden Prairie, Minn.) added sugar-free orange chewable tablets containing inulin to its Fiber Choice Supplement line. CarboLite Foods (Evansville, Ind.) introduced Premium Cookies containing "zero sugar carbs" and 5g of fiber per cookie.

In international markets, dairy and baby foods were strong new product categories for bioactives, with yogurt being the dominant delivery medium in the dairy category. The snack and beverage categories also exhibited upward growth trends in 2003. Energy bars were the prime conduit in the snack category and "energy" drinks comprised 20% of new beverage products.

Positioning Prebiotics

Unlike the U.S. market, the term "prebiotic" openly appears as a product descriptor on international products. In Belgium, Komplet's Millennium 3 Pain Brood Bread is marketed as a "prebiotic, magnesium and calcium-enriched bread." In Indonesia, Mead Johnson markets "School with 3 Prebiotics Chocolate Powder" a flavored dairy beverage for children six and older. Soma Smoothies are organic, prebiotic smoothies sold in Finland.

The slow entrance of products positioned or actively marketed as being prebiotic in the U.S. market may indicate consumers still are striving to grasp the meaning of this term.

Going Global

Dominant "added fiber" categories in 2003 global markets included the dairy segment. A GNPD search revealed only two new dairy products sporting the "fiber-added" phrase were reported in the U.S., while 49 products with the claim were introduced globally. In the beverage category, 49% of new product introductions fell into the ready-to-drink (RTD) juice/juice drinks category.

The Kewpie Company, in Japan, introduced Kids Kewpie, a blend of 47% fruit juice and 46% vegetable juice, with 3g of fiber, billed as a perfect snack for kids. In other beverage categories, LifePharm, in Singapore, introduced Slim Water, "made from a proprietary purified process enriched with soluble vegetable fiber," which provides 11.5g fiber per serving. Sapporo Breweries, in Tokyo, put a new twist on a popular delivery system by launching Hokkaido Namashibori Fiber, a beer fortified with water-soluble dextrin and positioned as providing 25% of an adult's daily fiber requirements.

Baby food introductions exhibit the most noteworthy new product differences between U.S. and global markets. Nestle's Prebio 1 Wheat and Banana Infant Cereal, containing oligofructose and inulin, was introduced in Singapore, and a close cousin presented in the Philippines. Cow & Gate, in the U.K., introduced a Chocolate Rice Sandwich for toddlers that is suitable for vegetarians and includes 4.3g of dietary fiber listed as inulin. In China, The Heilongjiang Kekang Group released Growing-up Formula milk, made from fresh milk with added taurine and oligosaccharides.