As a cardiologist, I've long regarded fiber as a special weapon in my medical arsenal. It can lower your heart disease risk by 40 percent, cut your chances of developing diabetes by nearly 30 percent, and significantly reduce blood pressure and the worst kind of cholesterol (LDL).
But not all fibers are created equal. In an attempt to make their products appear more wholesome and healthful, some food companies have started using "fiber additives." Some of these are isolated from natural sources; others are synthesized. They have unnatural-sounding names, such as inulin, malto-dextrin, and polydextrose, to list a few.
I doubt these additives impart the same advantages as naturally fiber-rich foods. As researchers are finding with other supplements, when a nutrient is removed from its natural food source (or when its beneficial properties are synthesized), healthful effects can diminish.
Before you fall for faux fiber, keep the following in mind:
Be skeptical about packaging hype.
Look at the amount of total Dietary Fiber listed on the nutrient panel (soluble and insoluble are equally healthful), then check the ingredient list to see where that fiber is coming from. The more real and recognizable the sources, the better the product is for you.
Add your own fiber.
Sprinkle some oats on baked goods, add beans to casseroles, or toss a handful of frozen green peas into soups. (Just a cup adds nearly 9 grams of fiber.)
Be supplement savvy.
When you're traveling or get too busy to eat properly, consider a food-fiber supplement. According to the National Fiber Council, Metamucil (which is derived from natural psyllium husk) is the only brand proven to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and overall risk of heart disease. Keep in mind, however, that at 3 grams of fiber per serving, it should not be your chief fiber source. As always, for your heart's overall health, the best choice is real, simple, whole food.
Dr. Arthur Agatston is author of The South Beach Diet Supercharged: Faster Weight Loss and Better Health for Life and a cardiologist in Miami Beach, FL.