Is Fibre Still Relevant in Weight Management?

“Old school” diet lore taught us that fibre “fills you up”, but recent research shows that there is much more to it than that. Dietary fibre has the power to alter the composition of the intestinal microflora, triggering the release of satiety hormones that communicate to the brain that we are full. The message, however, has not yet trickled through to consumers, leaving high fibre foods at the risk of stagnation.

Fibre More Complex than Previously Thought

After general wellbeing, weight management remains by far the most important health and wellness positioning platform. In 2013, the category accrued global value sales of US$156.3 million for thusly positioned packaged food and beverage products.

Fibre has long played a pivotal role in weight management. For decades, pharmacies and health food shops have been selling fibre tablets based on the simple concept that, if taken with enough water, the fibre swells up in the stomach and this is meant to produce a lasting feeling of fullness. In more recent years, various types of dietary fibre have been added to weight management foods and beverages in order to enhance the feeling of satiety produced after consuming these products.

We now know that it is not just a case of “fibre fills you up”. It turns out that there are many complex biochemical pathways involved that cause the brain to register a state of fullness. These mechanisms are gradually being uncovered and officially recognised.

Fibre Alters Gut Flora

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), for instance, approved a health claim pertaining to weight loss for glucomannan, a soluble dietary fibre derived from konjac root, which triggers the release of cholecystokinin, a satiety-inducing hormone. Last year, Carmit Candy, a US-based manufacturer of private label health and wellness confectionery, added a glucomannan-fortified chocolate wafer with a weight management positioning to its portfolio.

Recent research provides some more astonishing insight into the wondrous workings of dietary fibre. A small human study published a year ago in Nutrition Journal stipulated that the fibre contained in barley kernels had a profound effect on the study subjects’ gut microbiota, resulting in the release of the satiety hormone GLP-1, which subsequently led to a reduction in energy intake at meal times.

The researchers pointed out that previous investigations had already shown that the intestinal flora of people of normal weight differs quite markedly from that of obese people. Hence, the impact of indigestible fibres on the human digestive system and its implications for weight management are now a major area of scientific research with much promise for exciting future NPD.

In May 2014, the journal Nature Communications published a paper submitted by Imperial College London and the Medical Research Council which had concluded that the acetate molecules that are released when dietary fibre passes through the gut produce a signal in the brain, which tells the person to stop eating.

The researchers made the salient point that the diet of the average European contained just 15g of fibre a day, compared to the 100g that would have been consumed by a human in the Stone Age. Considering that our digestive systems are still on a Stone Age setting, a lack of dietary fibre has many negative implications for our health, including obesity.

Turning Consumers Back on to Fibre

Our data show that naturally healthy (NH) high fibre food achieved global value growth of 7% in 2013, and that while the category had been gaining in dynamism globally and in Western Europe over the 2008-2013 review period, North American growth rates have gradually diminished, lingering at an unexciting annual 2% for the past three years.

A renewed emphasis on weight management benefits could give high fibre food a second wind, and propel it out of the doldrums in the North American region, which was, not so long ago, its most buoyant growth market.

As yet, there is precious very little consumer awareness of how dietary fibre manages to produce weight management benefits, besides the rather simplistic rationale that it provides extra bulk in the stomach. Manufacturers of weight management foods and beverages may want to pay attention in the coming years to providing fresh scientific angles when hammering out their marketing strategies in order to drive it home to consumers that fibre has lost nothing of its relevance.