I had a lot of thoughts on names for this post. Everyone around here nixed my first attempt so I went with number two. (Get it?). Yes, we're talking about everyone's grandfathers' morning ritual beverage to get those bowels moving: Metamucil. Here's what you really need know about this fluorescent orange colon unclogger touted as "#1 Doctor Recommended" fiber brand.
In short, is Metamucil safe?
I would just like to point out before I go on, that most fiber products, the really good ones that are free of sugar or aspartame or artificial colours, don't actually carry a brand name. Usually they're called things like "flax seeds" or "psyllium", but I'll get there.
Having just spent way more time than anyone probably should on the Metamucil website, I have learned two things:
- They have a section full of Metamucil drinks (see below) that are all dressed up like what you might find on a cocktail menu at an all-inclusive resort.
- All of their fiber supplement products can and should be replaced by one single ingredient product: psyllium. All of the other products (Immune Support, Energy Support, etc.) should probably go away completely as there are actually effective alternatives available that don't have the long list of "non-active" ingredients.
Today, we're focusing on the classic that is a staple in every senior citizens' medicine cabinet: Metamucil.
Constipation: The Backlog of a Nation
Up to 19% of the North American population (about 63 million people) are not pooping. So yes, we know constipation is a major issue. We also know the key contributing factors. They typically include (in no particular order):
- Lack of fiber intake in the diet
- Lack of water intake in the diet
- Too much sugar in the diet
- Too much fiber-free starchy carbohydrates
- Gut microflora imbalance
- Food allergies or sensitivity
- Poor digestion
- Stress and anxiety
- Lack of exercise (helpful in stimulating motility in the colon)
Here's the thing with constipation - it is completely avoidable with proper diet and lifestyle changes.
Here's the other thing about constipation - sometimes, despite our best efforts, we are going to get bunged up.
Why Metamucil Is Not The Optimal Safe Option
There are a few different options when it comes to Metamucil fiber supplements. I assumed, at the very least, there would at least be a plain option I could recommend. At least that was what I assume "Metamucil Free" was going to be. I was wrong.
This one looked and sounded promising with the bold statement: "Metamucil-Free is free from artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and gluten as well as milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat or soybeans." It turns out that's all healthwashing.
As I have often said, it's not really about what's not in a product. We need to pay attention to what is in there.
What's Metamucil Free not free of? Sugar. In fact, sugar is the first ingredient.
Sugar is the first ingredient in Metamucil Free
Beyond the simple fact that we know sugar is not health building in the body, sugar is also a key contributing factor to constipation.
Studies repeatedly show how diet-induced dysbiosis (imbalance in the gut microflora) contribute to constipation and/or diarrhea. Sugar is the band leader on this parade of dysbiosis. What we need to accept is that fiber supplements are not delicious. They aren't meant to be and don't need to be. So why is there more sugar than fiber in a single serving of a fiber supplement.
Metamucil Math: Part 1
- Recommended serving of Metamucil Free for constipation: 1 rounded tsp (approximately 7 grams)
- Amount of sugar per serving of Metamucil Free for constipation: 4 grams
- How many teaspoons is 4 grams of sugar? 1.
- How much of the suggested serving is actually fiber? Roughly the "rounded" bit.
There is twice the sugar than there is soluble fiber in 1 tsp of Metamucil Free.
If this math is confusing, it's likely meant to be. The fact is that grams is a measurement of weight, and sugar is heavier than fiber.
What Does This Mean? It means that with Metamucil Free, you're taking 1 teaspoon of sugar to help with constipation, which makes me wonder, in this case, if it's the Metamucil at all that is helping people poop, or the glass of water being consumed with it.
Metamucil Orange Smooth
This is the classic I remember my grandpa drinking. I was pleased to see that with this option, at the very least, psyllium is the first ingredient. What follows is nothing to be proud of. The classic 'orange' option contains the following:
Psyllium husk, maltodextrin, citric acid, natural and artificial orange flavor, Aspartame, Yellow 6.
Let's break this down:
- Maltodextrin: Most often it is used simple as a cheap filler in processed foods, basically to take up space in a package. In this case, it is adding bulk to a product that is intended to add bulk to our intestines and really, just having more psyllium would be helpful. Interestingly, maltodextrin can elicit spikes in blood sugar because it has a high glycemic index. Now, in this case, the psyllium fiber would likely offset this effect but curious all the same in a product that contains artificial sweeteners and designed to be a 'sugar-free' option for diabetics. Maltodextrin, however, can affect the gut microbiome, suppressing the activity of the good bacteria in the gut which in turn can contribute to further constipation issues.
- Citric acid: Typically used as a preservative
- Natural and artificial orange flavor: There isn't much difference between natural and artificial flavours. Both typically start out as a real food and through many lab experiments and processes end up as a concentrated flavour agent. These flavor agents have been shown to adversely effect our body's detoxification pathways and have been associated with an increased risk in brain tumour development.
- Aspartame: Aspartame has been proven in studies repeatedly to have severe neurological degenerative effects, that increase with repeated exposure. Considered an excito-toxin, aspartame should be avoided. Here is a sweet round-up of 28 studies that associate Aspartame with a buffet of health conditions and concerns.
- Yellow 6.: First of all, it's a fiber supplement. Do you we care what colour it is? Yellow 6, derived from petroleum, is known to cause allergic reaction, and contains benzidene, a known human and animal carcinogen that can impact behaviour in children. Studies have also shown an association between this food dye and gastroenteritis - not helpful when trying to work out some constipation.
What Does This Mean: Though you may be getting a dose of fiber to help with constipation, you're also getting a cocktail of a whole lot of other unnecessary chemicals that have been associated with increased risk of a whole lot of other conditions that are far more detrimental to our health than constipation.
META HEALTH BAR CINNAMON OATMEAL RAISIN
I was going to stop after the analysis of the typical Metamucil products, but then these candy bars, I mean "fiber bars" also caught my attention.
Here is what Metamucil has to say about their bars:
A tasty way to help lower your cholesterol to promote heart health. Power your health from the inside with Meta Fibre Bar Cinnamon Oatmeal Raisin—the delicious and nutritious way to boost your daily fibre intake while you go about your busy day.
Made with 100% Naturally Sourced Psyllium Fibre, Meta's Fibre Bar:
- Helps lower cholesterol to promote heart health
- Promotes digestive health
- Helps satisfy hunger as a healthy snack
Up the fibre in your diet with Meta Fibre Bar—
a small simple step toward a healthier lifestyle.
Ingredients In The Meta Health Bar Cinnamon Raisin
Rolled oats, corn syrup, crisp rice (rice flour, malt extract, salt), raisins, invert sugar, granola (rolled oats, sugar, canola oil, honey, molasses), corn syrup solids, psyllium husk, raisin paste, glycerin, white compound coating (sugar, palm kernel oil, corn syrup solids, whey protein isolate, titanium dioxide, soy lecithin, salt, natural and artificial flavors), sunflower oil, natural flavors, gum acacia, soy lecithin, salt, tocopherols.
Here is What I Say About Their Bars
This is actually a candy bar. Likely a bad tasting one.
The nutritional label lists a total of 30grams of carbohydrates.
It is broken down as:
Dietary Fiber: 4 grams
Soluble Fiber: 3 grams
Sugar: 12 grams
Metamucil Math: Part 2
When we add up the dietary fiber, soluble fiber and sugar, we get 19 grams.
Where is the extra 11 grams that make up the total carbs? Well nutrition labels typically won't list the grams of starch. Those 11 grams are starch, which breaks down in the body into simple sugars. What we end up having is in fact 7 grams of fiber and 23 grams of sugar.
Extra fun: Go back up and look at the ingredient list for this bar. How many forms of sugar can you count? (Answer at bottom of post)
Given that psyllium is largely soluble fiber, and that it is really the only active ingredient in these bars, you might be interested to know:
- 3 Tbsp of flaxseeds contains approximately 3 grams of soluble fiber
- 1/2 cup beans or chickpeas contains 2 grams of soluble fiber
- 2/3 cup of cooked oatmeal contains 3 grams of soluble fiber
- An orange has 2 grams of soluble fiber
- 1 cup of cooked asparagus has 3.4 grams of soluble fiber
- 1 medium avocado has 3.4 grams of soluble fiber
What Does This Mean? If you eat a well rounded plant-rich diet (hello UnDiet living!), you are going to be getting way more fiber than what's in this bar.
Psyllium: Because Sometimes You Do Just Need More Fiber
Psyllium is the active ingredient in all Metamucil products. The name, in fact, comes from the "mucilaginous" property of psyllium, the slimy soluble fiber effect you'll also find in soaked flaxseeds, chia seeds, aloe, slippery elm and Sea moss.
The key to resolving constipation through fiber intake is taking in the actual fiber. And it works.
Psyllium is one of the most health supportive and powerful fibre supplements. It is like the great grand-daddy of the fibre world. Yes, it can be gag-inducingly awful to get down, but it is worth it.
Benefits of Psyllium Fibre
- Laxative Effect: Increasing colonic bulk stimulates propulsion (meaning evacuation). Psyllium husk provides the bulk that gives your colon something to grip on to and strengthen against - like a resistance band. It increases stool weight, while toning the smooth muscle that is the colon and promotes laxation by increasing the moisture content of our poop.
- Anti-Carcinogenic Effect: The structure of psyllium fibre is like a magnet to toxic waste in the digestive system; it grabs on for dear life and removes it from our bodies. In short, it helps remove waste efficiently.
- Intestinal Health: The colon of the human gastrointestinal tract contains a large population of resident bacteria. In fact, 55% of the solids in poo is microbial biomass. Psyllium is awesome at maintaining the bacterial balance in our colon, which then strengthens immune function.
- The Great Sponge: Psyllium can absorb a huge mass of water and other stuff. It has the ability to absorb excess bile, cholesterol and hormones like estrogen from the colon. If these aren't removed efficiently, they get reabsorbed but this doesn't mean the body stops producing them. The body will still produce cholesterol and so cholesterol levels go up. The body will still produce estrogen and so estrogen levels go up. And do we all know what high estrogen levels mean? Weepy tantrums during PMS and greater breast cancer risk to name two.
How To Take Psyllium
The easiest option is in capsule form. This is the least-gag inducing way to get it down, but know that you will be taking a lot of pills and it is more expensive this way.
Start with 1 tsp stirred into eight ounces of water. You may wish to slowly work your way up until your poop is adequately bulking. Always ensure you increase water intake accordingly.
I want to wear a badge of honour that proudly states "I down 3 Tbsp of psyllium in one go". As bad as it is to do at the time, I am always mighty proud that I went through with it when all goes according to plan in the morning.
- Adequate water intake is important!
- Best done on an empty stomach
- Though psyllium is often used as a binding agent in gluten-free baking, when used in this way, you are not getting the constipation remedy effects.
And so, if you are suffering from constipation, your priority should be to determine the root cause and resolve that. And if you want to up your fiber to increase transit time, tonify the large intestine, rebalance gut microflora and make your mornings an easy and efficient elimination process, then by all means, please invite psyllium to the party. Just leave out all the extra garbage.
* Answer to Metamucil Bar sugar question: There are a total of 11 different types and forms of sugar.