This new Fibre is the new Sugar

Fruit Oligosaccharides or FOS: Sounds healthy. Until it’s not.

The last 2 weeks I’ve been reviewing the Energy & Protein bar market. And as I researched one brand after another, I noticed an interesting trend. A trend that went from interesting to worrying in no time.

Sugar, as someone recently said to me, is the new ‘S’ word.

After decades of being sold a lie by the food industry, where ‘Fat’ was painted as the main culprit in making us fat, finally, sugar’s role as the real villain is getting revealed.

And that’s a big, significant victory for us — the health-conscious but truth-deprived people.

Problem is, sugar has become too integral to the global packaged food chain.

It’s a cheap, versatile sweetener that can be given any flavor. ‘Flavored Sugar’, after all, is what all Colas and most packaged juices are. Energy bars and granola and cookies and breads — are not very different.

So you see the issue. With the sudden rise in sugar-antagonism, the industry finds itself in a bind. Replacing refined sugar with natural sugar isn’t economically viable (not yet). And selling something with added-sugar is increasingly becoming taboo.

So what does one do?

Well, find something else that’s deemed to be, in its natural form, good. And see how we can juice it chemically to make a profit.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to start with some basics.


What exactly is Fibre?

We all consider it to be a ‘good thing’. We’ve been told to eat a lot of fibrous foods, a lot of roughage. We know that it’s found in vegetables and fruits and whole-grains. On constipated days we consciously tilt towards salads, hoping they’ll open up the logjam.

And we do all this for Fibre. But what exactly is it and why is it good?

Simply put: Fibre is a carbohydrate that our body can’t digest.

Yes, you read that right. We cannot digest fibre. It passes right through. That’s its defining characteristic.

A little more technically put: Fibre is a plant-derived carbohydrate that can’t by hydrolyzed by the enzymes in our small intestine.

Let’s dissect that statement.

  1. Fibre is plant-derived. So you’ll never find it in meat and dairy.
  2. Fibre is a carbohydrate. Not Protein. Not fat.
  3. Fibre can’t be hydrolyzed (broken down) by the small intestine. So it passes right through. And reaches the large intestine. Where things begin to get interesting.

Soluble fibres

Not all fibres are created equal.

Some fibres get dissolved in our stomach and form a thick, gelatinous substance (think oat porridge). These are call Soluble Fibres.

The gel or glue-like substance that soluble fibres form in our tummy, acts as a sticky-pad for carbs and fats. What that means is, if you have carbs and fat along-with certain naturally fibrous foods, the fibre will form a gel in the tummy and trap the fat and carbs, slowly releasing them into the bloodstream.

Now, recall that the problem with sugar (carbs) is the insulin spikes it causes. And since refined sugar is very easily processed and released into the bloodstream, the ensuing insulin spike is both immediate and intense.

That’s the biggest reason why having natural sugars is fat better than having refined sugar. Because natural sugar, invariably, is found in highly fibrous foods. Fruits being a prime example.

So the insulin response from such natural foods is controlled (Low GI). And these soluble-fibre-rich foods are very beneficial for people suffering from high cholesterol or LDL or diabetes.

Insoluble Fibres

The other kind of fibre, the kind that we mostly think of when we say ‘roughage’, are the insoluble kind.

These, as the name suggests, don’t dissolve. Instead, they absorb water, create bulk, and then pass right through the small intestine, clearing the way as they go. The result — a cleaned gut and a relieved you.

The body not being able to digest fibres is a good thing. It means that instead of trying to derive any nutrition from them, it just uses the fibre as a giant cotton-ball to rub and cleanse your insides, and then just let it pass through. #Win

What’s the problem then, with Fibre?

No problem, really.

Actually there’s a small problem with consuming excess fibre. Farting.

While we can’t digest fibre, some bacteria in our large intestine can. And that leads to flatulence. So if you’ve ever wondered why you’re farting (non-stinkies) after having such a healthy salad, don’t worry, it’s natural.

Ok so what’s the real problem then? And…

What has fibre got to do with sugar?

Good question. And since that’s where we started, go back to the image on top. Or to any ‘high fibre’ health bar or cookie that you may have in your pantry. And then turn the pack.

Below are the top 4 bars from India:

All of them, and I mean all, would’ve claimed ‘No-Sugar-Added’ on front of pack and then added FOS (or Fructo-Oligosaccharides) and hidden it in the ingredient list. On the front, they would’ve mentioned the same FOS as ‘10gm Dietary Fibre/ Pre-Biotic Fibre’.

And to top it off, many would’ve claimed themselves to be ‘All Natural’.

First of all, FOS isn’t natural. It’d be called ‘orange’ or ‘dates’ if it were.

It’s a chemically derived dietary fibre. Derived from chicory root or Jerusalem artichokes or even from sugarcane. So make no mistake, it’s NOT a naturally occurring form of fibre. It may be nature-derived, but it’s not natural.

And that poses a few problems:

Pre-Biotic Fibre

Let’s get this clear — Pre-Biotic isn’t Pro-Biotic.

This is generally an intended confusion tactic, where manufacturers hope to endow a healthy halo on ingredients that don’t deserve it.

(Check out the first picture I’ve put above. One of India’s best selling, premium protein bars — Yoga Bar. And see its nutritional info — 10.6 gms of dietary fibre)

Pro-Biotics, are the healthy bacteria in your gut. When you consume foods that have these bacteria, that food is termed pro-biotic.

Pre-biotics, are foods that these Pro-Biotic bacteria feed on. But they don’t have any pro-biotic bacteria.

But one may say that while misleading, this too is a good thing. The pro-biotic bacteria, after all, need food to survive.

True, but there’s a second problem.

Good & Bad Bacteria

Surprise surprise. The human gut has both kinds.

And no surprise-surprise, we don’t know for sure if FOS feeds only the good kind! Even yeast have been shown to be able to feed off of FOS.

But most importantly, what scares me, is how our gut-bacteria will adapt to FOS. And that’s why I draw the comparison with Sugar.

Is FOS the New Sugar?

FOS, is naturally sweet (it’s a carb remember). It also has other benefits like locking moisture and providing texture.

No wonder then, that it has become such a welcome ingredient in the food industry. Especially for baked goods like cakes and bars.

The simple formula:

Remove refined sugar →Add FOS →If more sweetness is needed, add some sugar-alcohol (maltitol or sorbitol) →Happily claim sugar-free on pack and sell a nice, sweet candy-bar.

Problem is that FOS, as we discussed, is a chemically derived fibre. And it’s a hyper-dense fibre. A kind of intensity that our gut-bacteria isn’t used to.

A whole orange has 3gm of fibre, and these bars have anywhere between 8–12gm of FOS! Imagine the fibre of 3 oranges chemically sucked and stuffed into one bar, but without everything else that comes with the orange. It just doesn’t sound right.

This is how we started with sugar. Sugar itself wasn’t bad. It was there in fruits and dates and milk and grains. The problem started when we started extracting it into refined-sugar, which came without the fruit’s fibre and minerals. And since it became so easily available and all-pervasive, we started consuming it in copious amounts.

I see FOS headed down the same path.

Without a complete understanding of how our gut-bacteria processes this new, intense, vitamin and mineral-free form or fibre, we’ve start consuming it in bulk. And without sufficient education or clear labelling, there’s every chance that, in case we need to course correct, it’ll be too late by the time we realize.

Because by then FOS, just like Sugar today, will be everywhere.

Does your food have FOS?

If yes, please do comment and post a picture below. I’m trying to learn about this new ‘magic-pill’ of the food-industry and all examples with help.

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One thought on “This new Fibre is the new Sugar

  1. Very interesting write-up.

    However, I would like to point out several things:

    1) If we look at evidence – FOS has been associated with positive health outcomes. Even studies published in peer reviewed journals with high impact factor rate them favourably. Example:

    2)The daily recommended fibre intake is around 30g/day. Indians consume only 15g fibre daily. So frankly I do not see it ethically wrong to fortify a bar with 10g fibre

    3) The cost of FOS is almost 5-10 times more than sucrose – so it is not really a SCAM!! After all your margins are getting hit.

    Government of India is investing in development of FOS locally and even companies like Tata have invested in local plants to manufacture FOS in India.

    Sorry but this article made it sound like FOS is some cheap substitute to sugar- which evidence says it is not.

    Do let me know what you think!!

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