Gaming the requirements

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We want more fiber in our food, because it's good for us and maybe makes us thin.  We do not, however, seem to much desire fibrous foods; fruits, vegetables, and oatmeal are nowhere near as popular as highly processed carbohydrates.  Manufacturers have willingly stepped in with products that have a lot of fiber . . . on the label.  The question of how much heart-healthy, colon-friendly, waistline-trimming fiber is in the food, on the other hand, remains open:



 For example, Campbell's V8 High Fiber, which Liebman calls "high fibber," claims on its label to offer "20 percent of the recommended daily value" of fiber per 8-ounce glass. As Liebman pointed out in a recent report, the fiber that Campbell's is talking about is maltodextrin, which she says has not been shown to have "any impact on regularity, or any aspect of digestive health." You may have seen the goofy Fiber One Yogurt commercial in which a supermarket employee watches an older woman wolf down yogurt after yogurt. "That's her fourth free sample. ... She's almost had a whole day's worth already," he says, flabbergasted. "And I still can't taste the fiber," the woman replies incredulously. There's a reason for that. The makers of Fiber One Yogurt haven't invented some magically creamy and delicious version of wheat bran. They simply stuffed the yogurt with inulin. A spokeswoman for General Mills, the makers of the yogurt, defends the advertising by pointing to studies showing that inulin suppresses appetite and promotes regularity. Inulin has not been shown to reduce cholesterol levels or lower blood pressure and has a much smaller laxative effect than wheat bran, says Liebman.

Ironically, the rise of these faux-fibers is driven by the greater attention that consumers are paying to nutrition labels. The food companies, in other words, are teaching to the test. Whether it's reducing fat and calories or adding fiber and vitamins, the industry is getting ever more clever at manipulating ingredients of snacks and other treats so that the stats mimic the nutritional data of fruits and vegetables.

I predict a wave of pressure on the FDA to change the labelling requirements.  I propose that instead we funnel the money into a public advertising campaign.  Message:  "If it tastes that good, it isn't good for you."  Evolution has hard-wired us to seek out simple carbohydrates and fat.  If something tickles that deep reptilian longing for deep fried sugar cubes, it's not healthy.  Slapping an RDA number on it won't change that fact.  Things that taste too good to be true, aren't.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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