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Fiber free-for-all.

Fiber Free-For-All AYDS CANDIES WERE SUPPOSED to curb your appetite by numbing your tongue. Starch blockers were supposed to make your body incapable of digesting stachy foods. Amino acids and grapefruit diet pills were supposed to "burn off fat while you sleep." None worked.

The new darlings of the never asleep diet industry are "all natural" fiber supplements, worth an estimated $50 million in 1987. But you don't need a Ph.D. in nutrition to know that it isn't so natural to swallow a handful of coated sawdust-like tablets with a glass of water before every meal. Nor do you need an M.B.A. to guess that, like its predecessors, fiber supplements are best at slimming your wallet.

The National Enquirer couldn't come up with better headlines than the labels on these preparations. "Lose weight in 7 days!" says the package of Eat 'n Lose. "The healthy way to become slim and trim," says the box of Fiber Full. Ads call Fibre Trim "the European way to slim."

Yet few of the companies NAH contacted have done controlled studies showing that their supplement helps people lose weight. "We haven't done any clinical studies on Fiber Full," explains Karen Deutsch of Solar Nutritionals, a division of Thompson Medical Company. "Our claims are based on pre-existing studies in the scientific literature on fiber in general."

Only seven of those studies are good ones. In these seven, neither the participants nor the researchers knew who was getting a placebo and who was getting fiber.

In three of the seven studies, dieters who got fiber supplements lost no more weight than those who got placebos. [1-3] The other four found that fiber-takers lost an average of only 4-1/2 pounds more than the placebo-takers over several months. [4-7] Not exactly America's answer to obesity.

Moreover, the average, 4-1/2-pound difference tells only part of the story. It fails to reveal that some fiber-takers lost considerably less than the average for the fiber group, and some placebo-takers lost considerably more than the average for the placebo group.

In other words, if fiber supplements do promote weight loss, the effect is both modest and variable. What's more, in the study showing the best results, fiber-takers took the equivalent of 36 Fibre Trims a day. [4]

No doubt, some people have lost weight taking fiber supplements. After all, the packages recommend a low-calorie diet. But it's not clear that a "satisfying sense of fullness" from the fiber makes it easier to follow a low-calorie diet. That fullness may come from the full glass of water you're instructed to gulp down with each dose.

Big Secret: Little Fiber. One reason fiber supplements may not work is that they really don't supply much fiber. To get around that minor stumbling block, some manufacturers don't tell you how much--or rather how little--fiber each tablet contains.

Take the industry leader, Schering's Fibre Trim. The label says it is "44 percent fiber." Sound like a lot. But 44 percent of two-hundredths of an ounce--that's what each tablet weighs--doesn't amount to much. Each tablet contains only 0.275 grams of fiber. That's as much as you'd get in a slice of white bread, or roughly one percent of the 20 to 30 grams recommended for an entire day.

If your read Fibre Trim's label carefully, you'll find that "a serving" is not one, but five, tablets. But it's not until you slap down $7.79 to buy a box of Fibre Trim, that you can read the insert and find you have to take five tablets three times a day (more if you get hungry between meals).

All that pill-swallowing yields a grand total of 4.1 grams of fiber--as much as you'd get in two slices of whole wheat bread at a cost of 8 cents. But 15 tablets uses one-seventh of the bottle at a cost of $1.11 a day. In a week, you'll need to shell out another $7.79 for another hundred tabs.

Sparkling Profits. Schering has recently added another option for wealthy dieters. According to the company (not the vague information on the label), Fibre Trim Sparkling FruitTabs provide 1 gram of fiber (pectin) from grapefruit, lemon, lime, and orange peels. Rather than swallowing these quarter-size tablets, you dissolve them in 5 ounces of water.

The company adds sodium bicarbonate to make it fizz, natural and artificial flavors and aspartame for taste, vitamin C for marketability, and a few other miscellaneous ingredients. A daily dose of this high-fiber Kool-Aid costs a mere $2.50.

Pick a Fiber. Solar Nutritional's Fiber Full and Ayerst's Fiber Guard have twice as much fiber, and Your Life's Fiber Filler has four times more than Fibre Trim (see chart). You get more fiber in part because the tablets are bigger. (Good luck swallowing the mammoth Fiber Fillers.)

If any fiber promotes weight loss, it's probably guar gum, a soluble fiber that won't help prevent constipation because it actually slows the movement of food through the gut. Eat 'n Lose contains guar gum, but it also contains oat bran, wheat bran, corn bran, pectin, psyllium seed, and apple fiber. It contains more fiber than other supplements--2-1/2 grams per serving--because a serving isn't a tablet. It's a packet of "taste-free natural fibers" you're supposed to sprinkle over your food twice a day.

Whether Eat 'n Lose aids weight loss is unclear, because its manufacturer, CCA Industries, has never compared Eat 'n Lose to a placebo. The "study" they did conduct was poorly controlled. As spokesperson Drew Edell puts it, "our goal was not to do a scientific study, but a consumer use profile."

Cancer Guard? Ayerst's Fiber Guard contains soy and beet fibers. The label promises more than weight loss. With phrases such as, "a high-fiber, low-fat diet is important to your health," it implies that the supplement can help prevent cancer.

The National Cancer Institute recommends eating 20 to 30--but no more than 35--grams of fiber a day. (Most of us eat about 10 grams.) But NCI specifically recommends fiber-rich foods, not supplements. That's because its advice is based partly on studies of populations that eat diets rich in whole grains and have low rates of colon cancer.

FDA Drags Its Feet. If fiber supplements were over-the-counter weight-loss drugs, the Food and Drug Administration would require their manufacturers to submit studies to show that the products had been proven both safe and effective. But despite their appearance, the companies claim that fiber supplements are foods, not over-the-counter drugs. So, they needn't prove the supplements actually work.

Nevertheless, FDA could--and should--take some action. In June, 1987, CSPI petitioned FDA to include fiber labeling on all foods with nutrition labeling. Fiber is as least as important as thiamon, riboflavin, and 10 other nutrients that FDA already requires on nutrition labels.

That would force companies to clearly label the fiber content of their tablets. Fibre Trim, Fiber Full, Fiber Diet, or Eat 'n Lose couldn't say "44 (or 50 or 75) percent fiber." Fiber Guard couldn't say 1,590 to 2,120 milligrams of fiber. (Using milligrams is like telling a foreigner your annual salary in pennies.)

Instead, the label would have to list fiber content in grams. That way, consumers could compare supplements to beans, breads, and other foods with fiber labeling.

CSPI's petition also asked FDA to set a daily allowance for fiber. Once fiber has a USRDA, the agency could prohibit fiber claims for any supplement with less than 10 percent of the USRDA per serving.

An advisory panel to FDA has already agreed with NCI that people should shoot for 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day. If FDA were to adopt that figure, it could conceivably knock Fibre Trim and Fiber Diet right out of the market, because both supply less than 10 percent of that "USRDA" per serving.

The Bottom Line. Most fiber supplements are safe. Only Fiber-Rich, which combines grain and citrus fiber with phenylpropanolamine (PPA), poses a risk to health.

PPA is the active ingredients in numerous over-the-counter diet pills, such as "Dexatrim" and "Appedrine." It is an amphetamine-like stimulant that raises blood pressure high enough to cause strokes in susceptible people. PPA can also cause chest pains, heart rhythm disturbances, psychic reactions, and seizures.

Truly Natural Fiber. But despite their safety, fiber supplements are still a rip-off. The fiber in wheat bran costs about a penny per gram. Fibre Trim's fiber is 28 times more costly. You're paying $1 or more a day for the manufacturer to wrap the fiber into little pills--and make a handsome profit to boot.

Nor do you save many calories by getting your fiber from a supplement. A gram of wheat bran fiber has 5 calories. Fibre Trim has close to 4 calories per gram of fiber.

Ironically, if you follow the packages' instructions to eat a low-calorie diet, you'll be eating fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains anyway. Why not do so without wasting your money on expensive and largely useless supplements?


[1] Lancet 1: 1262, 1960.

[2] Bjoerntorp, P., Vahouny, G.V., Kritchevsky, D, eds. Dietary fiber and obesity. Current topics in nutrition and disease. Vol. 14. (Alan Liss, New York), p. 69, 1985.

[3] Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 43: Abstract #136, 1986.

[4] J. Norweg. Med. Assoc. 104: 989, 1984.

[5] Acta Med. Scand. 208: 45, 1980.

[6] J. Norweg. Med. Assoc. 103: 1707, 1983.

[7] Int. J. Obesity 11 (Suppl. 1): 67, 1987.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Title Annotation:fiber supplements as weight-loss aids
Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:May 1, 1988
Previous Article:The all-American junk food diet.
Next Article:Bean cuisine.

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