When Dr. James Anderson of the University of Kentucky began studying the effects of oat bran on blood cholesterol levels in diabetic patients in 1977, he was considered a bit of a gambler. Although increasing the consumption of carbohydrates in these patients was a common practice, oat bran was at that time practically unheard of for human consumption. It was considered at best a commodity reserved for use in animal feed.
Today, however, nutrition-conscious consumers are thinking differently about oat bran. With increasing attention on the positive attributes of oat bran--specifically its implication in lowering blood cholesterol--supermarket supplies continue to attract attention and diminish in quantity.
Consumers eager to find ways to reduce the risk of heart disease have begun baking batches of oat bran muffins in an effort to increase their intake. They are adding oat bran to everything from soups and gravies to meat loaves and coatings for chicken and fish.
There are even a few bakeries around town that have capitalized on the oat bran craze. People's Muffinry in downtown Los Angeles boasts that their colossal oat bran muffins are sweetened with fruit and vegetables (such as pumpkin), moistened with a highly monounsaturated oil (rapeseed) and feature whole-wheat flour. They will even make them to a customer's specifications--offering no sodium, no sugar and other options--upon request.
Yet if this yen for oat bran continues, bran fans may be forced to find an alternative for their miracle ingredient.
Since May of 1987, sales of oat bran have increased 784%, according to Cheryl Holloran, a registered dietitian and consumer communications group specialist for the Quaker Oats Co., the major manufacturer of the product. She admits that the company is having difficulty keeping up with the demand for oat bran and that there's no projected date when it will return to the shelves.
In the meantime there is good news. Researchers say that oat products in general and oatmeal in particular have the same benefit as oat bran when incorporated into a daily low-fat diet regimen. Persons interested in preventive--as opposed to therapeutic--solutions to the risk for heart disease can indeed reduce their blood cholesterol. Some have even been able to reverse the development of the fatty deposits that clog the arteries and cause heart attacks by including oatmeal as part of their daily diet.
It is true that oat bran contains about twice as much total plant fiber and soluble fiber as oatmeal. But it is much less appealing and versatile as a recipe ingredient.
"Most people think oat bran tastes like wet sand," said Linda Van Horn, assistant professor and research dietitian at the Department of Community Health and Preventative Medicine at Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago. She admits that the palatability of the product can make it ineffective as a dietary replacement for other complex carbohydrates. She recommends that larger amounts of oatmeal be substituted, to raise compliance and achieve the benefit.
Cholesterol is a wax-like substance found only in the cells of animals. It is essential to human survival, and the body is capable of manufacturing all the cholesterol it needs. Safe blood cholesterol level is 170 to 200 milligrams per deciliter--for proper body function. The danger for most individuals begins when the cholesterol level regularly exceeds 240 milligrams.
When saturated fats and, to a lesser extent, cholesterol laden foods are eaten, they are converted to blood cholesterol in the intestines, which is scientifically known as high-density and low-density lipoproteins (HDL and LDL). These are transported through the blood stream to be used as building material for cell membranes, hormones and nerve endings.
Cholesterol to Cells
The HDL and LDL act as tour guides, setting the cholesterol on its course for use in the body. The chief function of LDL is to carry cholesterol to the cells, while HDL is responsible for removing excess cholesterol to the liver for disposal when the cells are finished with it.
The trouble is that when too many foods containing saturated fat and cholesterol are consumed, the body produces more LDL than necessary. And there is no dietary source for HDL. The extra LDL overwhelms the system and can get deposited in the arteries, ultimately clogging the passageways (atherosclerosis) and constricting the flow of blood to the heart (heart attack) and to the brain (stroke).
Anderson's research proved that oat products, because they are water-soluble and tend to carry some of the extra LDL out of the body with them, have a positive effect on this process. But his study was conducted on men who already had a high blood cholesterol level or some other medical complication and was seen as limited in its implications for the general population. Van Horn decided to study normal, healthy people living in a free environment. The results corroborated Anderson's.