On Tummy Aches and Processors’ Favorite Fiber Additive

March 26, 2013 in fiber, Foodland Chronicles, Health by Joyce Bunderson

Have you noticed an increase in problems with flatulence (gas)? It seems that people immediately think of beans, cabbage, bran and milk. But maybe you’re overlooking a relatively new cause of gas – fiber additives using inulin, aka chicory root fiber, Frutalose, or other aliases. The big food processors are more and more often turning to inulin, which is sweet chicory root fiber. They’re using it to replace sugar, fat or as a substitute for other fibers; and to promote its probiotic colonic fermentation properties. Chicory root fiber, or oligofructose, is used to enhance taste, texture and processability.  For a food processor, this means it mixes in easily and without complications with many different processed foods. It is a low cost and convenient way to replace the bulk of sugar and high fructose corn syrup. It can also replace up to 65% of sweetness levels. The inulin fiber is often used in bars, cereals, baked goods and dairy products. It all sounds wonderful. In essence, it reduces sugar, fat and increases fiber. That seems to be a perfect trade off, and a marketer’s dream come true. Now replacing sugar and high fructose corn syrup makes it sound like a benefit, something we would recommend in this website, but it appears possible to have too much of a modestly good thing.

Unfortunately, January/February Nutrition Action Healthletter reported that, according to professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota, Joanne Slavin, “Of all the fibers added to foods, inulin is the one that probably causes the most intestinal gas.” We don’t digest inulin; but it’s not a problem for the bacteria that live in our large intestine – they digest it happily and the gas that they give off expands in our lower bowel. Slavin explained how studies have shown that many people can tolerate up to 15 grams a day; but at around 20 grams, flatulence, bloating is likely. So how much of this new favorite of food processors you eat becomes a big issue.

It doesn’t seem to be such a problem, until you realize that it may not only be in your yogurt, but also in your cottage cheese, brownies, cereal – any processed food, especially those touting fiber. Now with so many products wanting to flaunt fiber and not contain any gluten; it seems like a product made in heaven – and food processors of all stripes have jumped on the bandwagon.  As a result, you can end up getting well above the 15 grams that most people can tolerate. So be careful, it can add up to discomfort and embarrassment.

Among the interesting pieces of information in the Nutrition Action article is that Slavin explains that a serving of beans, delivers about three grams of oligosccharides, but one Fiber One Chewy Bar delivers about nine grams. So if you’re getting gas from beans, check out what else you might be consuming that adds to your problem.

Don’t forget the Sorbitol and maltitol sweetened ice cream, candy or gum. The Nutrition Action Newsletter found that one of Baskin Robbins No Sugar Added ice creams - Caramel Turtle Truffle has 25 grams of maltitol per scoop. The Bryers and CarbSmart and No Sugar Added ice creams usually have four to five grams of Sorbitol per half cup. Some individuals are very sensitive to Sorbitol and maltitol. I just happen to be one of those people. One night a couple of years ago, I had a scoop of a berry swirl no sugar added ice cream. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, the abdominal cramping began. I ran downstairs to look at the carton; – of course, I found that it was loaded with sugar alcohols. It’s not much of a danger to your health, but can be pretty uncomfortable. And heaven knows you would not want to be in public.

The food processors are also using inulin to enhance mouthfeel in dairy products; replacing some or all of the fat. You may get both the sugar alcohols and the inulin in the same product. That gives your tummy a double whammy.

One of the new frontiers for oligofructose, inulin, is in weight management. The point is that foods that have calories can be replaced by food (inulin/fiber) that is not digested by humans. That too seems like a great idea. Many Americans are not getting enough fiber in their diet and we know that about two-thirds need to lose weight; so it sounds like another win-win. But now it is being overused, and it is possible to get overdoses of something that on average creates gas at 20 grams. For any of us who are not at the average in how it affects us, it may take less than 20 grams. Because not many people can quickly and intelligently decipher food labels, and take time to do so, it is hard to be responsible for avoiding an overdose. I personally, have simplified the problem by avoiding all processed foods as much as is practical.  I rather eat fruits and vegetables that have many nutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients) and supply natural, not processed fiber. I think choosing on the side closer to nature is a good way to go.

If you discover that you’re part of the rather large group of people who are sensitive to too much inulin, then you will probably start checking the labels of processed foods – or better, dropping the offending ones off your shopping list. But one of my big concerns is for children, especially little tots. If you’ve ever had too much inulin, or know someone who has, you may understand my concern for children. I think that you should be very careful in serving foods with inulin to children. If you’re attracted to the fiber in the products, at the very least, be careful when first trying out those products with the children. I’d be especially sad to cause a tummy ache, diarrhea, or flatulence in a young child. Certainly, a much smaller amount of inulin or sugar alcohols can cause discomfort in a small child.

Funny thing, I was at a women’s group dinner last evening; nutrition came up, as it so often does. I mentioned inulin; no one had heard of it. One of the ladies said that she and her husband tossed the Fiber One Bars, after getting stomachaches. The lady next to me, pulled from her purse a Kellogg Fiber Plus bar. After checking her bar, she said that she did not think that there was any inulin in her bar and she wanted me to look at it for her. It didn’t take long; the very first ingredient was chicory root fiber. Now the fact is that I eat very little highly processed foods, I avoid fiber bars, processed cereals or fiber added dairy. As a result, I haven’t noticed how many products include this ingredient. For my readers, I just want you to be aware of the fact that the food processors are using all the various names of this new type of fiber. So be on the lookout for: chicory root fiber; or just plain chicory root; oligosccharides; inulin; oligofructose, and Frutalose, Oliggo-Fiber, Dahlia Extract, Dahlia Inulin, extract of Chicorie, long-chain oligosaccharides, prebiotic, beta fructans, Inulina, to name a few. I have said many times that food processors often deliberately devise confusing labels that disguise ingredients to make it look more healthy than it is. I’m not saying that inulin in all its aliases is toxic or bad, I’m just saying; if you’re getting a tummy ache, you may be getting more of this food-processors’ profitable new favorite than your particular body can manage.