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  • Fiber One’s Fiber Fallacies

    In General Mills’ extensive product catalog, Fiber One is the health and wellness darling.  What started out as a standalone cereal in 1985 is now an expanded line that includes bars, breads, brownies, cottage cheese, muffin and pancake mixes, ready-to-eat muffins, and even yogurt.  According to Susan Crocket, General Mills’ senior technology officer for health and nutrition, high-fiber offerings in the General Mills lineup (including Fiber One), are successful because they “actually taste good so people will actually eat [them]“.

    Fiber One products are essentially marketed as a “one-stop shop” for fiber needs.  One of the company’s main selling points is that a mere half-cup of their original cereal offers 14 grams of dietary fiber (56% of the low-end of the daily recommended 25 – 35 gram range).

    Consider me not enthused, for two reasons.  First, the Fiber One website resorts to misleading tactics and inaccurate figures to showcase their products.  Second, some of their products contain questionable ingredients and less-than-desireable nutrition values.

    Let’s begin with the unfair fiber comparisons.  The Fiber One website provides two “educational” (?) tools — the Fiber Comparison Tool and the Fiber Counter.

    The Fiber Comparison Tool pits a half-cup of Fiber One against a variety of whole foods (such as broccoli, oatmeal, and apples), and displays an illustration of how much of that given food one must consume to match the amount of fiber in their cereal.  For example, the comparison tool notifies us that one would need to eat a dozen half-cup servings of broccoli to match the amount of fiber in one half-cup serving of original Fiber One cereal.

    Before we get to the problem of comparing foods solely on fiber amounts, some of the figures used in this tool are unfairly tweaked for optimal effect (i.e.: a standard serving of nuts is one ounce, but the comparison tool uses a half-ounce serving, thereby lowering the grams of fiber per serving).

    Not surprisingly, this tool “proves” that Fiber One is a “better” choice than broccoli, carrots, blueberries, oatmeal, popcorn, and apples based solely on fiber content.

    Since when can foods claim nutritional superiority based on one nutrient?  Such a shallow comparison ignores the fact that the whole foods stacked up against Fiber One offer an array of phytonutrients and antioxidants not found in any capacity in General Mills’ much-lauded cereal.  And, here’s a nice bonus — unlike original Fiber One, none of those foods contain aspartame.

    A breakfast that consists of of a cup of cooked oatmeal, one sliced banana, and a tablespoon of almond butter contributes a worthy 8 grams of fiber and delivers much more actual nutrition than a bowl of Fiber One with milk.

    Over on the website’s Fiber Counter, visitors are encouraged to “plug some of [their] favorite foods into [the] Fiber Counter and find out how close [they] are to meeting [their] dietary fiber goal [of 25 grams a day.]“  This sentence is, not at all surprisingly, immediately followed by a suggestion to consume Fiber One if one falls short.  And fall short you will, seeing how whoever invented this tool has set you up to fail and inaccurately conclude that you need to eat Fiber One.

    Although there are thirty foods to choose from, only four can be selected and tallied up.  What’s worse, most foods appear as very small servings.  For example, the oatmeal and brown rice options are for a half cup of the finished cooked product (which is half of a standard serving, thereby yielding low fiber values).  Similarly, popcorn is available as a choice, but as a one-cup serving (a standard serving clocks is three cups!).

    So, if you ate a cup of oatmeal with breakfast and a cup of brown rice with your dinner, that takes care of your four available spots (two half-cups of oatmeal plus two half-cups of brown rice); which, quelle surprise, doesn’t add up to “a day’s worth of fiber.”  What bunk!

    The only way to meet your daily fiber requirement tool according to this tool is by choosing one of the depicted Fiber One products.

    I beg, plead, and implore to differ.  It’s actually rather simple to consume 25 grams of fiber a day without resorting to Fiber One cereal.  Consider this short list of foods:

    • Avocado (medium, one half): 6.5 grams
    • Banana (medium): 3 grams
    • Black beans (1/2 cup): 7 grams
    • Ground flaxseed (2 tablespoons): 4 grams
    • Oatmeal (1 cup, cooked): 4 grams
    • Sweet potato (medium, with skin): 4 grams

    This provides 28.5 grams of fiber and is a realistic portrayal of a selection foods a person may eat over the course of three meals and a snack or two.

    Fiber follies aside, many Fiber One products have nutrition values and ingredients that leave quite a bit to be desired.

    • Their strawberry yogurt, for example, contains two artificial sweeteners (aspartame and acesulfame potassium) along with a petroleum-derived artificial dye (Red #40).
    • The key lime-flavored yogurt offers the same two artificial sweeteners and two artificial dyes (Yellow 5 and Blue 1).
    • Fiber One Caramel Delight cereal provides 10 grams of sugar (just short an entire tablespoon) per serving; in fact, sugar is the second ingredient.
    • Their 90-calorie brownies are made from white flour with added fiber (adding isolated fibers to white flour does not result in a nutritional equivalent of 100% whole grain flour).
    • All three varieties of Fiber One muffin mixes have sugar as the first ingredient and also contain partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil.  The apple cinnamon muffin mix has more bleached white flour than whole wheat flour.

    Fiber One products perfectly exemplify why food companies love nutritional tunnel vision; add some extra fiber to a muffin and it suddenly makes the leap from from “occasional treat” to “daily staple”.  The lesson is an all-too-familiar one: get your fiber from foods that intrinsically offer it, and don’t fall for the fortification “quantity over quality” trap.

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    9 Comments

    1. Ken Leebow said on June 27th, 2011

      I certainly would not attribute my perfect health to Fiber One, however, it was instrumental with assisting with weight loss for one reason:

      satiety (a key ingredient to healthy living)

      1/2 cup of Fiber One loaded with fruit (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, banana, etc.) and skim/almond milk makes for a great breakfast.

      At less than 200 calories, this breakfast packs a powerful punch.

      As far as its Fiber One bars, I don’t bother with them.

      Ken Leebow
      http://www.LifewithoutLipitor.com

    2. Andy Bellatti said on June 27th, 2011

      What’s interesting, though, is that satiety is linked with soluble fiber, which Fiber One contains very little of. All those fruits you mention, however, deliver a very generous amount of soluble fiber.

      So, really, any low-sugar, high-fiber (ie: 5 or 6 grams per serving) cereal topped with those fruits can satiate efficiently. Even an oat cereal that delivered 3 grams of soluble fiber (along with those fruits) would have probably been just as helpful.

    3. Eleonora said on June 27th, 2011

      Andy, 2 questions:

      1) When you refer to a cup of cooked oatmeal, how much uncooked oatmeal are you referring to? For example, does half a cup of uncooked oatmeal yield 1 cup cooked?

      2)Despite the misleading marketing tactics, would you say that the original Fiber One cereal (I’m referring to the little sticks that taste like sweet dog food)is bad for you? My kids LOVE this stuff. They usually mix it with yogurt and almonds. I’m never thought of it as unhealthy… would like to hear your thoughts (and alternatives).

    4. Andy Bellatti said on June 27th, 2011

      Eleonora,

      A half cup of uncooked oatmeal yields 1 cup of cooked oatmeal.

      It’s not so much that Fiber One is “bad” for you, it’s just that it’s much more beneficial, from a health standpoint, to get fiber from a variety of foods (so you get other nutrients and health beneifts). I know some people in the past told me they loved Fiber One because a half cup with breakfast and a half cup as a snack took care of their daily fiber. Sure, they may have gotten a little more fiber in other meals, but they weren’t concerned with it. That, in turn, concerned me.

      As you know, I do not like artificial sweeteners, so that is also a strike against Fiber One in my book. If someone is looking for a similar high-fiber alternative, I would recommend Uncle Sam cereal, which has no artificial sweeteners, no added colors, and is simply whole wheat, flax, and a tiny touch of malted barley. I also like that Uncle Sam cereal provides fiber from whole wheat, rather than isolated fibers.

    5. Lauren Slayton said on June 29th, 2011

      You’re awesome and much nicer than I am. I love the time you spent on the ins and outs of Fiber One’s fiber tools but I’m stuck on those ingredients. People like these bars because they love processed food. I’ll stick with beans and avocado (I may have nutritional tunnel vision for avocados, that’s ok, right?).

    6. Andy Bellatti said on June 29th, 2011

      Lauren,

      You’re absolutely right; it’s amazing how “x grams of fiber” can have such a distracting effect from other heinous ingredients.

    7. Emily Joyce said on June 30th, 2011

      Andy,
      Just discovered your web site through Marion Nestle’s blog…

      I admit to having a 1/2 cup of Fiber One Original with my daily yogurt and blueberries. And I actually own other cereals that I am not currently eating. I was disappointed when they started offering so many other products, especially their glorified candy bars.

      I’m not so averse to artificial sweeteners as you are, but I am aware of the “addictive” qualities of sweet foods, and so avoid refined sugars as much as I can. Especially the deadly combo of refined sugars added to overly-processed foods. I’m kind of in the “moderation” camp.

      I look forward to reading more…

    8. BrettFutureRD said on July 20th, 2011

      This is a trap that many well-meaning health conscious people fall into. Food marketing likes us to focus on individual nutrients, and not foods. Same thing with calories. They like to trick us into thinking that just because they’ve processed the hell out of a brownie to be down to 90 calories, people will think it’s good for them, despite it having a laundry list of preservatives, fillers and artificial sugars.

    9. Susan said on August 17th, 2012

      I get fiber from vegetables, but recognize I’m still probably lacking because I can’t stand oatmeal or cereals for breakfast. I bought a box of Fiber1 and decided to spice it up a bit — added pepper, paprika, garlic powder, a dash of salt, some olive oil, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce, mixed it all up and up into the oven for 10 minutes. I now have a delicious crunchy fiber snack. Much more palatable than soggy cereal.

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