Most of us could use a little more fiber in our diets, and adding it without compromising on a recipe's appeal might soon be much easier.
Scientists from RMIT University in Australia have developed a modified starch product that can be added to food without affecting its taste, color, or texture.
It's called FiberX, and it's been produced from native starches including wheat, corn, and cassava. Like actual fiber, it resists digestion in the human gut, allowing microorganisms in our colon to ferment it and potentially improving the digestive process.
The team behind FiberX says it can be added to low-fiber foods such as cakes and pizza to make them healthier, as well as to foods that are low in calories or low on the glycemic index (how quickly food raises glucose levels, which is important for those with diabetes). It can also be made in a gluten-free way.
"We can now add extra fiber to foods like white bread and other staples without changing the taste or texture, which has been one of the main issues with many commercially-available fiber supplements to date," says food technologist Asgar Farahnaky, an associate professor from RMIT University.
"Our product is not even noticeable once added. It's just like a parent hiding vegetables in a child's meal to make it more nutritious."
Based on taste tests, the researchers say they were able to add the equivalent of up to 20 percent extra fiber to foods with FiberX before any difference in taste and texture was noticed. That's a significant amount.
To produce FiberX, the scientists modified the original structure of starch on a molecular level, before testing it with digestive enzymes to see how it would hold up in the body's digestive system.
"Once the resistant starch goes through this process, it needs to have high levels of resistance to be counted as a successful conversion to dietary fiber," says food scientist Mahsa Majzoobi, from RMIT University.
Around 80 percent of the original starch can be converted into dietary fiber using this method at the moment. The team is now looking at greener, chemical-free ways of applying this conversion before FiberX is scaled up and mass-produced.
Fiber is a carbohydrate that can't be digested by the human gut, which has the effect of improving the function of the digestive system and keeping it healthy. It's been known to help prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
But there are benefits to FiberX beyond the direct health implications, the researchers say: for example, the huge amounts of waste produced as byproducts to plant protein production can be turned into dry pulse starch and then into FiberX.
The research team is partnering with the Microtec Engineering Group to work on getting FiberX out of the lab and into actual products, and at a competitive price – though there are still plenty of steps to take before it can actually appear in diets.
Natural fiber plays a huge role in modulating our gut microbiome, so it will be important to assess this modified starch's impact on the microbes that live within us too.
A review by the same team recently published in Food Hydrocolloids assessed the different techniques for modifying starch from cassava, finding reports of numerous health benefits for the more resistant forms of cassava starch.
"This new technology means we can increase the amount of fiber that goes into the food so we can receive our recommended daily intake, even while consuming less foods, which has potential to help with weight management and diabetes," says Farahnaky.