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A Guide to Beta-Glucans: What Are They and Why Are They Beneficial?

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Did you know that Americans consume only about half of the recommended amount of dietary fiber? While the new FDA daily value (DV) for fiber is 28 grams, the average intake for Americans is 15 grams per day.1 Dietary fiber has been identified as a nutrient of public health concern due to the health impacts of underconsumption. However, as food manufacturers work to boost the fiber content of their food products, it’s important to know that all fibers are not created equal.

For example, beta-glucan is a fiber that may be best known for its FDA-approved heart health claim. The approved health claim for beta-glucan states that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 3 grams of beta-glucans per day from oats or barley may reduce the risk of heart disease.

A health claim petition submitted to the FDA in 1995 had presented strong scientific support linking whole oat consumption to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. The FDA concluded that beta-glucan was responsible for the effect. In 1997, the beta-glucan heart health claim for oats was authorized. Barley beta-glucan was added in 2005.

What Are Beta-Glucans?

Beta-glucans are polysaccharides made up of connected glucose units. The connected glucose rings resemble a chain, but some branching may be present, depending on the type of beta-glucan. Beta-glucans are found in certain grains, especially oats and barley, with smaller concentrations found in wheat, rye, and sorghum. Another important source is mushrooms like maitake, shiitake, and reishi. Baker’s yeast and some seaweed and algae also contain beta-glucans.

Different types of beta-glucans have different solubilities, molecular weights, glycosidic linkages, and degrees of branching. These differences may enable them to have different effects on the body. 

Bakery ingredients

Beta-Glucans and Heart Health

The FDA recognizes that certain soluble fibers, such as oat and barley beta-glucans, help to lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and total cholesterol levels when they are consumed as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.2 The role of beta-glucan in lowering cholesterol is especially important due to the link between high cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.3 Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women.4 Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease. 

Coronary heart disease, which affects the heart and its supporting arteries, can occur when cholesterol accumulates inside the artery walls. The cholesterol binds with other substances in the blood, such as calcium and fat, to form plaques. Over time, these plaques cause a narrowing of the arteries which restricts blood flow to the heart. A heart attack can occur when blood flow to the heart is sufficiently reduced. 

In addition, hardened plaques can rupture, causing blood clots to form. A blood clot blocking a coronary artery is another cause of heart attack. Furthermore, a piece of plaque can break off into the bloodstream and become lodged in an artery. A heart weakened by reduced blood flow from plaque build-up is also prone to heart failure.

FDA-Approved Heart Health Claim

The FDA has approved the use of a health claim for beta-glucan derived from the following sources: oat bran, rolled oats, whole oat flour, oatrim, whole grain barley, dry milled barley, and barley betafiber. Consuming 3 grams or more per day of oat or barley beta-glucans is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. 

To make the health claim, a food product must contain at least 0.75 grams of beta-glucan soluble fiber per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) of that food and be low in saturated fat and cholesterol. The food must also be low in fat unless it exceeds this fat level due to the fat contribution from whole oat sources.

Model heart health claims for beta-glucan:5
1) Soluble fiber from foods such as [soluble fiber source], as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. A serving of [name of food] supplies ____ grams of the 3 grams of soluble fiber from [soluble fiber source] necessary per day to have this effect. 
-OR-            
Beta-glucan soluble fiber from foods such as [soluble fiber source], as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. A serving of [name of food] supplies ____ grams of the 3 grams of beta-glucan soluble fiber from [soluble fiber source] necessary per day to have this effect.
2) Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 3 grams of soluble fiber per day from [soluble fiber source] may reduce the risk of heart disease. One serving of [name of food] provides ____ grams of this soluble fiber.               
-OR-                                                                                          
Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 3 grams of beta-glucan soluble fiber per day from [soluble fiber source] may reduce the risk of heart disease. One serving of [name of food] provides ____ grams of beta-glucan soluble fiber.

The claim also allows certain additional information to be included if desired. The claim can specify that the relationship between beta-glucan intake and the reduced risk of heart disease is through the intermediate link of blood cholesterol (or total and LDL cholesterol). Furthermore, the health claim may include the number of people in the U.S. who have heart disease as long as it is current information, the source is identified, and the information is taken from the National Center for Health Statistics (NIH) or "Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans" (USDA and DHHS).

Applications in Bakery Products

The U.S. bakery products industry achieved sales of about $32 billion last year from commercial bakeries with another $3 billion from retail bakeries.6 Sales are forecast to reach $39.9 billion in the next five years, with a continued trend toward healthier products such as fortified breads.7 As a staple in U.S. households, bakery products provide an ideal opportunity to deliver the health benefits consumers are looking for.

Fiber is the perfect place to start. Consumers associate baked goods with fiber and look for fiber on the label. Fortifying with beta-glucan achieves not only a boost in fiber, but also a heart-healthy option for consumers and a product that stands out from other baked goods. Beta-glucan can be easily added to bread, rolls, bagels, muffins, and even nutrition bars.Baker ingredients

Fiber Defined by FDA

Among the recent sweeping changes in nutrition label regulations, fiber has finally been defined by the FDA. Traditionally, the term “fiber” has been used to mean non-digestible carbohydrates, but it now has a legal definition. To qualify as a fiber, it must be either naturally occurring in the food or, if extracted or synthetic, it must have sufficient scientific evidence supporting a physiological benefit to human health. Beta-glucan is on the list of approved fibers. 

The Benefits of Beta-Glucans

Bakery products with added beta-glucans provide benefits to both consumers and manufacturers. Fortifying with beta-glucans also has these advantages over other fortification options:

  • Increased fiber content
  • Heart health claim
  • Added value to products
  • On-trend nutrient
  • Label-friendly name
  • Neutral flavor profile
  • Easy-to-handle powder

It can be challenging to consume enough fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains to achieve optimal health benefits. Fortified foods, such as Beta Bagel®, play an important role and can help bridge the fiber gap. Our Beta Bagel® mix provides 0.75 grams per serving of beta-glucans from oats. It also fits nicely into the all-day breakfast and snacking trends.

To learn all the ways we can support your bakery needs, click to see our complete line of Bakery Ingredients.


References

1. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

2. Health claims: Soluble fiber from certain foods and risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). (2017). 21 C.F.R., § 101.81.

3. Cholesterol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/index.htm. Page last updated January 23, 2018. Accessed February 24, 2018.

4. Heart Disease Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm. Page last reviewed November 28, 2017. Accessed February 24, 2018.

5. Health claims: Soluble fiber from certain foods and risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). (2017). 21 C.F.R., § 101.81.

6. First Research. (2018). Bakery Product Manufacturing Industry Profile

7. First Research. (2018). Bakery Product Manufacturing Industry Profile

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