Beyond the marketing hype, there is value in some of those functional ingredients.
I (Nicole, aka June #1) work in the food industry. For years, I have been explaining my “unusual” home life to coworkers—the lifestyle of homemade food centered on local, natural ingredients that readers here take to be completely normal. So (readers here) you may be surprised that I actually like some of the new-fangled ingredients that cross my desk at the office.
Health & Wellness is a personal interest of mine, and though I strive to get the bulk of my nutrition through simple, minimally-processed foods, I do see benefit in some functional ingredients. I am particularly smitten with ingredients that deliver fiber, particularly soluble fiber. It’s not easy to refer to them with one name, because so many ingredients fall under this broad category. Sure, you’ve heard of barley and oat bran, but what about inulin, resistant corn starch, dextrins, fructans, guar gum, acacia gum, psyllium, beta-glucans, and pectins?
Thanks to a diet based on whole foods, I hit the recommended amount of fiber intake on most days. But despite my good habits, I often suffer from blood sugar lows during the day. Because foods high in soluble fiber are less likely to cause a spike in blood glucose, I seek them out. Many Americans can understand my position, as Type-2 Diabetes continues to rise. Resistant corn starch (so called because it resists digestion in the small intestine) can add fiber to my favorite breads and cakes without altering texture. (There are many other sources of resistant starch, including the naturally-occurring ones found in beans and bananas.) It’s also a prebiotic (true of most soluble fibers), fermented by the beneficial flora in the large intestine and effective in maintaining good gut health. Resistant starch has thus found a niche in special diets—particularly for people who suffer from Celiac disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Most of us don’t associate gums and pectins with good nutrition, but recently they’ve hit the spotlight as a source of soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is getting a lot of attention for its potential effect on heart health, so don’t be surprised to see more advertising in this area. (The FDA regulates how nutrients are labeled, as well as what health claims are permissible on a label.) Soluble fiber has the ability to lower serum cholesterol—particularly LDL levels. This is another aspect of health that hits home to me. Sure, a good diet rich in whole foods contains adequate soluble fiber—but what about the folks who want to try to get their cholesterol levels down? These ingredients could be an alternative to the various prescription drugs currently available, or at least a first line of attack.
I don’t believe every marketing pitch I read, and I’m tired of reading one-line summaries of health studies cited by advertisers and news media. But nor do I assume that every new product created in industry is a Frankenfood. There has to be a happy medium between calling a food item the Holy Grail or an abomination. As for natural, some gums and fibers fit the bill: many gums are plant-based, and many resistant starches are not chemically- or genetically-modified. Other fibers come from sources you may not expect—inulin is derived from chicory, and commercial pectins come from apple pomace and citrus peels—by products of fruit juice production. I love it when the whole food is used!
It’s wise to read health claims on marketing materials with a degree of skepticism. I don’t expect every food I eat to be unprocessed and pure. Sometimes a cake is just a cake. Putting fish oil and antioxidants in my favorite dessert is not going to impress me. And industry isn’t the only culprit—food councils (that market a single food) are virtually elbowing each other out of the way to get our attention as THE most important superfood. Sure, __________(insert name of fruit , vegetable, or whole grain here) is packed with antioxidants and goodness, but that doesn’t mean you should eat it at the expense of other foods, which, by the way, also happen to be packed with goodness. Moderation is the key—moderation in judgment as well as habit.
Next week: TwoJunes explore how teaching children at an early age about where food comes from and getting them in the garden young is a great way to convert and possibly even prevent picky eaters.
Lisa Bell is a freelance producer, writer and editor. She spent the first fifteen years of her working life as a pastry chef, recipe developer, test kitchen director, food stylist and print editor. She has also taught cooking classes, run a small cooking school, and worked as a food scientist. Nicole Rees currently works as a baking scientist. She is also a food writer and cookbook author specializing in baking science. Her most recent book Baking Unplugged, is filled with simple, scratch recipes that require no electric gadgets beyond an oven.