Defining moment

Related tags Dietary fibre Dietary fiber

Defining moment
Is the European Commission finally making the way legally clear for dietary fibre? Francesca Twinn and Elaine Watson report

It may not be the sexiest food ingredient on the block, but fibre has a lot going for it. Not only does it perform some nifty technical functions as a fat replacer and texturiser, it is also claimed to have some pretty impressive health benefits as well. Effects vary according to the fibre in question, but fibre is variously claimed to decrease intestinal transit times, increase stool bulk, reduce 'bad' cholesterol, stimulate the growth of 'good' gut bacteria and even keep the hunger pangs at bay, among other things.

But this jack of all nutritional trades also comes with a big question mark hanging over it. From a legal point of view, there is no universally accepted definition of dietary fibre, which has proved a major bone of contention for legal experts, manufacturers and nutritionists, with some gunning for a narrow definition of fibre as 'intrinsic plant cell wall polysaccharides' and others in favour of a broader definition to include a whole swathe of 'fibre-like' ingredients.

Pinning this down matters for several reasons. The first is a practical one. If you want to say your product is 'high in fibre', for example, you need to know what counts as fibre. The second is commercial. For suppliers of ingredients with names that consumers may not recognise, such as inulin and polydextrose, being able to describe them as fibres is also pretty critical to your marketing strategy.

For these companies, the 'right' definition is one based on what fibre does, rather than what it is. While cynics might argue that commercial interests should not influence the legislators, suppliers would argue that it is better to focus on the health benefits of these ingredients rather than basing a definition on something that can be assayed according to a particular analytical method.

While the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation defines the criteria by which manufacturers can make claims such as 'source of fibre' (3g fibre/100g), or 'high fibre' (6g fibre/100g), it helpfully does not actually define what fibre is.

Differing analytical methods have further added to the confusion, with the British historically favouring the 'Englyst' method, which only measures non-starch polysaccharides, but other EU Member States typically favouring the 'AOAC' method, which measures a broader range of components from resistant starch to lignin, polydextrose and oligosaccharides.

Defining the problem

Partly spurred by the renewed impetus to define fibre created by this Regulation, the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) NDA Scientific Panel finally came up with a definition in July 2007 that certainly cheered up a lot of people in the industry.

This stated: 'The definition of dietary fibre should include all carbohydrate components occurring in foods that are non-digestible in the human small intestine. This includes non-starch polysaccharides, resistant starch, resistant oligosaccharides with three or more monomeric units, and other non-digestible, but quantitatively minor components when naturally associated with dietary fibre polysaccharides, especially lignin.'

The NDA Panel considered that the main types of total dietary fibre were: 'Non-starch polysaccharides - cellulose, hemicelluloses, pectins, hydrocolloids (ie gums, mucilages, beta-glucans); resistant oligosaccharides - fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), other resistant oligosaccharides; resistant starch - consisting of physically enclosed starch, some types of raw starch granules, retrograded amylose, chemically and/or physically modified starches; lignin naturally associated with the dietary fibre polysaccharides.' In other words, pretty much everything the industry was hoping for.

A year later, following some discussions at standards body Codex, the European Commission finally published a proposal amending Directive 90/496/EEC on the Nutrition Labelling of Foodstuffs, to include a definition of dietary fibre broadly in line with the NDA panel statement.

This was voted on and accepted at Standing Committee in June 2008 and is now close to publication in the Official Journal of the EU.

This gives a broad definition of dietary fibre as all carbohydrate components occurring in foods that are non-digestible in the small intestine, but which also have beneficial physiological effects: 'Fibre means carbohydrate polymers with three or more monomeric units, which are neither digested nor absorbed in the small intestine. Dietary fibre consists of one or more of: edible carbohydrate polymers naturally occurring in the food as consumed; carbohydrate polymers, which have been obtained from food raw material by physical, enzymatic or chemical means; synthetic carbohydrate polymers.

'For the material to be considered as fibre a beneficial physiological effect should be demonstrated by generally accepted scientific evidence except in the case of nondigestible edible carbohydrate polymers naturally occurring in foods as consumed.'

While some companies were unhappy about this, it has been largely well received, says Dr Diederick Meyer, head of scientific and regulatory affairs at inulin supplier Sensus. "Obviously, we're more or less happy because it includes inulin. However, the requirement about demonstrating beneficial physiological effects supported by 'generally accepted science' could cause problems for suppliers of some other fibre-like materials."

Member States will be required to implement the Directive into national legislation within one year of publication. Businesses will be given a four-year transition period to change their labels, according to the Food Standards Agency.

SACN throws cat among the pigeons

So far so good. Now fast-forward to August 2008, when the UK's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) decided to put the cat among the pigeons with an inflammatory statement that not only questioned many of the claimed health benefits of fibre but suggested a far narrower definition altogether.

According to SACN, there is 'insufficient evidence for health effects in relation to dietary fibre and colorectal cancer or colorectal adenoma, obesity, diabetes, blood pressure lowering and for prebiotic effects'.

And as for what fibre is, 'it still needs to be proven that specific fibre components such as oligosaccharides have an independent effect. We therefore consider that it is potentially misleading to include non-intrinsic fibre in the definition [of dietary fibre] in the absence of other evidence'. It added: 'Non starch polysaccharides and soluble fibres would be the only components definitely included within a fibre definition without further evidence.'

To translate, this means that in SACN's view, polydextrose, inulin, GOS, resistant starch and a number of gums, to name but a few, should not be classified as fibre.

Not surprisingly, this has upset a lot of people.

Wim Caers, regulatory affairs manager for the Beneo-Group, parent of leading inulin and oligofructose producer Beneo-Orafti, says: "This [SACN] viewpoint is not the preferred one amongst the industry and important scientific institutes.

"We don't agree with SACN's definition, which is based on a definition more than 30 years old. Since then, much scientific evidence has proven that inulin is definitely a dietary fibre. If the SACN definition is accepted, we cannot predict what will happen as all labelling will need to be changed."

According to Beneo-Orafti, "the most powerful and researched prebiotics are actually inulin and oligofructose. These are natural food ingredients extracted from the chicory root. Inulin is a soluble fibre, which has the same effect as fibres from fruits, vegetables, wholesome bread and cereals. By incorporating modest amounts of inulin and oligofructose into bread products, bakeries can create foods, which can have a real benefit on the digestive health of consumers. Concentrations of 5-8% are enough to have a beneficial effect"

Back at Sensus, Meyer is equally unhappy with SACN, but points out that its views should not have any bearing on the European legislative process, with the amendment containing the (far broader) definition outlined above now about to hit the statute books. "To put it simply, SACN's statement has come out too late [to make any difference]."

He adds: "SACN concludes that there is insufficient evidence for prebiotic effects. This is where we clearly disagree. We are of the opinion that there is sufficient evidence for a variety of physiological and potentially healthy effects of inulin consumption. We mention the improvement of bowel movement, the lowering of serum triglycerides and cholesterol, especially in dyslipidemic people, and the improved absorption of calcium and magnesium with potential benefits for bone health."

Julie Scott, regulatory affairs supremo at National Starch Food Innovation, which currently describes its resistant starch ingredients as fibres, adds: "We can't understand how SACN has come up with this without proper consultation. A group of us have got together to form a fibre consortium under the auspices of the Food and Drink Federation to present a united front on this."

She adds: "At the international level, there are still people arguing for a far narrower definition of fibre as 'intrinsic plant cell wall polysaccharides' as proposed by the World Health Organisation [which would exclude a whole swathe of ingredients including resistant starch and inulin, which National Starch & Co claim to provide significant health benefits]."

But given that the definition of fibre has now been decided at EU level, can manufacturers simply ignore what SACN has said?

Yes and no, says Meyer. "What worries us is whether SACN's comments will feed into Codex discussions in November [as the FSA says they will]. We can't believe Codex is still talking about this. We thought these discussions were going to be over 10 years ago, but for some reason, they refuse to go away." FM

''KEY ContactsBeneo-Orafti 01442 261199EFSA 00 39 0521 036 452Sensus 01992 825555''

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