An Industry in Limbo: GMA Responds to FDA’s Closer Look at Fiber

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The food industry is speaking up about the definition of dietary fiber.

When the newly approved nutrition facts guidelines for food and beverages were first announced, the amount of ingredients that could count towards dietary fiber levels was severely reduced. But soon after the unveiling, the FDA announced that it would review 26 additional isolated and synthetic ingredients to determine if they could be counted as dietary fiber, leaving producers unsure if their products would be affected.

However, after almost a year with no guidance or updates on the review, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) issued a comment last week asking for answers, claiming that one in four products could potentially be affected by the new regulations.

In addition to naturally occurring fibers that are “intrinsic and intact” in plants, the FDA has identified only seven isolated fibers as meeting the dietary fiber definition – beta-glucan soluble fiber, psyllium husk, cellulose, guar gum, pectin, locust bean gum and hydroxypropylmethyl cellulose. The fibers under review — both plant-derived and synthetic ingredients such as inulin, gum acacia, xanthan gum, apple fiber and retrograded corn starch — are some of the most common additives used to boost dietary fiber in food.

If approved, food manufacturers will be able to continue to use these ingredients to bulk up the dietary fiber content of their foods. If not, brands would need to consider reformulations in order to maintain the same dietary fiber levels in their products.

Food producers did receive some relief this summer, when the FDA extended its compliance dates from the original July 28, 2017, deadline for large food producers to Jan. 1, 2020, giving manufacturers about a year and a half more to prepare for the change. But the FDA, who declined to comment for this article, has yet to decide whether it will extend its new definition of dietary fiber to cover the 26 additional substances now under review, leaving many industry leaders, including the GMA, in limbo while waiting for an official guidance to be issued.

“Many of the ingredients commonly used by industry are not included in the new definition of ‘dietary fiber’,” wrote the GMA in a comment to the FDA. “Without the critically needed final guidance on… dietary fiber, among other issues, the affected companies must make significant assumptions about nutrition information placed on a label which, if wrong, would require future re-work to correct. The unintended need for such corrections would likely result in product recalls and considerable consumer confusion.”

The GMA also noted that it takes about 18 months to two years to implement label changes, making the time table for producers to be in compliance with the new guidelines tight.

Though inulin is one of the 26 ingredients being evaluated by the FDA, it is also one of the widest used ingredients. An exclusion from the new definition would have a massive impact on the industry. But food producer Fiber One, which uses inulin in its products, told NOSH that it’s not concerned.

“The FDA has received ample scientific support for inulin’s health benefits to finalize their fiber evaluation, so we do not anticipate the need for recipe changes,” the company said in a statement.

Companies like Beneo, which supplies inulin to thousands of customers globally, also think the ruling will favor the popular fiber present in baked goods, nutrition bars, cereals, dairy, beverages, early and special nutrition products.

“Since chicory root fiber inulin is so functional, it is included in almost every general category of food products in most markets worldwide,” Beneo president Jon Peters told NOSH. “Frankly, we just don’t anticipate that this will be the outcome of the FDA’s process related to dietary fibers in the United States. Considering the body of scientific work that has been conducted using inulin as a source of dietary fiber over the decades, Beneo is convinced that US consumers will continue to be able to enjoy inulin as an important source of fiber in their daily diet.”

There’s also a larger issue at play: should an “unhealthy” food to be able to proclaim health attributes, such as fiber? Critics argue the FDA should not allow these new added fibers to apply to health claims on labels, saying the potential for additional added-fiber callouts will confuse consumers and lead them to believe that unhealthy packaged food options that use added fiber are actually a part of a healthy diet.

“”Highly processed snack bars typically contain combinations of processed starch and added sugar. They’re low in vitamins and minerals,” Dr. David Ludwig, of the Harvard School of Public Health, told NPR. “Just adding isolated fiber back [into these processed foods] does not cover up for those nutritional deficiencies.”

Peters, however, said he thinks fiber adds a nutritional boost to products that consumers would consume regardless.

“Adding fiber to products will certainly have a beneficial impact on the overall nutritional status of those products. Consumers need to be aware of the overall nutritional status (calories, fat, serving size) of the food products they are consuming,” Peters said. “Adding chicory root fiber to enhance the fiber content in products such as cookies while also replacing added sugars is a practical way to improve a commonly consumed snack product.”