Last month one of my blogs focused on a rash of stories bigging up the supposed nutritional properties of bread. It turns out that this ‘news’ had been based on ‘research’ published in the Nutrition Bulletin – a publication of the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF). I challenged the notion that bread provides some essential role in the diet, and pointed out some of the health problems that might be associated with eating bread. The head of the BNF, Professor Judy Buttriss took exception to this, though at the same time admitted that the review had been paid for by Warburtons (purveyors of bread). You can read the original blog post and Professor Buttriss’ objections here, as well as my response to her here.
I did email Professor Buttriss suggesting that she might like to comment further, but I’ve not had a peep from her. I’m not holding my breath. I do hope, though, that Professor Buttriss is wising up to the idea that the BNF cannot just produce any old rubbish industry-funded ‘research’ and expect us to gratefully swallow it whole without thinking. The rules have changed in recent years, and I urge Professor Buttriss to understand that this latest episode highlights to people just how cosy the relationship between the food industry and nutrition organisations can be. Recognition of this can only sap at the credibility of the BNF, I think. Also, my sense is the fact that Professor Buttriss has chosen not to respond to the points I put directly to her in my follow-up blog post does not reflect well on her or the organisation she heads.
Now, today, I read this story in the UK national daily The Express which tells us how stupid we all are for thinking fibre can be found in foods like chocolate, eggs and beer, and bemoaning the fact that some us can go short on fibre if we eschew bread. Sound vaguely familiar? Well, you won’t be too surprised to learn that these nutritional nuggets have come from a survey conducted by, wait for it….Warburtons. On this occasion, it appears that the BNF has not been co-opted to help Warburtons sell its message, though GP (family physician) and TV doctor Dr Hilary Jones makes all the right noises with a general condemnation of low-carbohydrate diets.
The original industry paid-for pro-bread review seemed to me to provide a wholly biased account of the role of bread in the diet – a piece of balanced ‘science’ it most certainly was not (in my opinion). So, what about this latest salvo from Warburtons? Is fibre all that important, as is claimed?
The sort of fibre found plentifully in, say, wholemeal bread is known as ‘insoluble’ fibre – more colloquially referred to as ‘bran’ or ‘roughage’. This is said to provide bulk to our stools, and help prevent constipation and colon cancer.
Actually, insoluble fibre can irritate the gut, and provoke symptoms such as bloating and discomfort. On the other hand, the other main form of fibre – ‘soluble’ fibre – tends to improve bowel symptoms such as constipation and abdominal discomfort . Soluble fibre is found abundantly in natural, non-processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
The idea that insoluble fibre helps prevent colon cancer is often expressed, but is not supported by the research, either. For example, studies show supplementing the diet with fibre does not reduce the risk of cancerous tumours or pre-cancerous lesions [2-4].
The authors of a review on the role of fibre in lower bowel conditions including cancer concluded that “…there does not seem to be much use for fiber in colorectal diseases”, adding that their desire was to “emphasize that what we have all been made to believe about fiber needs a second look. We often choose to believe a lie, as a lie repeated often enough by enough people becomes accepted as the truth” .
1. Heizer WD, et al. The role of diet in symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in adults: a narrative review. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(7):1204-14
2. Fuchs CS, et al. Dietary fiber and the risk of colorectal cancer and adenoma in women. N Engl J Med. 1999;340(3):169-76
3. Jacobs ET, et al. Intake of supplemental and total fiber and risk of colorectal adenoma recurrence in the wheat bran fiber trial. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2002 11(9):906-14
4. Alberts DS, et al. Lack of effect of a high-fiber cereal supplement on the recurrence of colorectal adenomas. Phoenix Colon Cancer Prevention Physicians’ Network N Engl J Med. 2000;342(16):1156-62
5. Tan KY, et al. Fiber and colorectal diseases: separating fact from fiction. World J Gastroenterol. 2007;13(31):4161-7