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Remember the rise of oat bran, and how everyone was really into antioxidants a few years ago? Ever wonder why so many foods seem to be yuzu-flavored right now? What about how every food product now wants to point out how much protein is inside it? You’re noticing food trends.
Predicting the next big food trend — and moving on it to create a competitive advantage before consumer behavior changes — is a perennial food industry obsession. For many brands, hitting the right one at the right time is what defines success. Sustainable sourcing, plant-based eating and sugar reduction are all examples of current food industry macrotrends.
Coming out of the global pandemic, people are more interested than ever in managing and safeguarding their own health, and one of the core ways we do that is through a focus on the macronutrients in our foods. This represents a growing opportunity for food brands.
Fiber is an overlooked macronutrient
The food industry has long focused on reducing sugar, carbs and fat content in packaged foods. More recently, it has focused intently on increasing protein content. However, protein deficiencies are so rare in North America and Europe that they don’t even have a precise English name — “kwashiorkor” is actually a Ghanaian word for protein-related malnutrition.
In contrast, the one macronutrient that’s most often ignored on our supermarket shelves is the one consumers and food formulators ought to pay the most attention to. I’m talking, of course, about fiber.
Fiber offers the biggest opportunity to become the food macrotrend of the future.
Like protein deficiency, we don’t have a word for fiber deficiency, but we should. Unlike protein deficiency, almost every American today suffers from a fiber deficiency — studies show that 95% of Americans consume less than their daily recommended amount, eating on average only half as much fiber as they should. The Mayo Clinic recommends 21 to 25 grams of fiber a day for women, and 30 to 38 daily grams for men.
Unfortunately, fiber deficiency contributes to an epidemic of non-communicable diseases and the rising health care costs that go with them. The US Center for Disease Control reports that in the US, cardiovascular disease costs $216 billion per year and causes $147 billion in lost productivity. That’s not the worst, though. One of every four health care dollars goes to treating diabetes, which tops the non-communicable disease expense alone chart with an annual spending of $237 billion on direct medical costs.
Making up the difference isn’t simply a matter of downing an extra scoop of bran flakes. Fiber is naturally found in plant-based foods, but you need to scarf down a lot to hit the recommended daily 30 grams. A sample menu might include one oat bran muffin (5 grams), one cup chopped boiled broccoli (another 5 grams), one medium pear and a medium apple (4.5 and 5.5 grams, respectively), a raw carrot (1 gram), two slices of whole wheat bread (4 grams), 1 cup of chopped raw cauliflower (2 grams) and one cup of strawberries for dessert (3 grams).
Fiber appeals to health-conscious consumers
If the food industry invests in fiber, that proverbial ounce (or rather 30 grams) of prevention could lead to greater overall health outcomes. The research shows it clearly: Eating more fiber helps ensure better health.
According to Harvard University, eating sufficient amounts of fiber can lower the risk of developing “heart disease, diabetes, diverticular disease, and constipation,” and that it also appears that fiber may act as an anti-inflammatory in patients with these conditions. This research is backed by numerous studies worldwide.
Researchers also note that fiber is a natural and effective way to remove toxins from the body. Plus, by regulating the body’s glycemic responseit provides other beneficial effects, such as lower blood sugar.
One of the most promising ways in which fiber’s benefits are beginning to be communicated is through the impact on gut health. We need fiber to help our digestive systems function properly. As Laura Entis wrote in Entrepreneur“The low-fiber, highly processed diets so common in our industrial society may be depleting the diversity of our microbiomes.”
That’s because the fiber we eat creates a happy habitat that feeds our gut microbiota, the bacteria that live in our intestines and contribute to our overall health. In fact, researchers also keep finding stronger links between gut health and mental health, particularly with foods that are considered prebiotic. Prebiotic foods contain fiber that creates the ideal conditions for gut flora, setting our digestive systems up for optimal performance.
A study led by Dr. Ali Boolani, a researcher in the Department of Physical Therapy and the Department of Biology at Clarkson University, found that gut flora can actually affect a person’s mood. In addition, Boolani and colleagues reported an imbalance in gut flora contributions to persistent fatigue, which affects about 45% of the American population. “What you eat determines the bacteria and the microbiome in your gut,” Boolani told Sci News.
Many companies are leading the charge on this front. One is Gutsii, which makes prebiotic chocolate using inulin, a fiber found in many fruits and vegetables. Other companies have signed on to various initiatives to include more fiber, including the UK’s Food and Drink Federation’s Action on Fiber initiative.
For me, I’ve spent my career as a carbohydrate developing new ways to access and use plant fiber from otherwise underutilized sources and have made it the foundation of my work at The Supplant Company. It’s clear to me that fiber has been, until now, the least-appreciated macronutrient. And yet, it’s essential to human health, the most abundant biological resource on the planet and the most abundant product of our food system.
As more people come to realize the benefits of getting enough fiber in their diets, and as more companies start to find ways to meet consumer demand for additional fiber in their food, we’ll see that fiber offers fertile ground for the next wave of food entrepreneurs — especially those seeking to promote human health.