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Supplements Claim to Let You Eat and Treat


The lines dividing food, drugs and supplements continue to blur. The latest evidence: Two products soon to hit the market that target people with potentially serious medical conditions cost more than some prescription medications and are recommended as snacks--but are taken like supplements. They are only lightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Lean on Me and Level Best, both made by Functional Foods Inc. of Belmont, Mass., are offered as "structured snacks" for people battling heart disease, diabetes and excess weight. The products, set to debut later this month, will be sold in drugstores and on the Internet for about $1 per dose.

Recommendations are to take them twice a day as a midmorning and a midafternoon snack.

Lean on Me is aimed at those who want to lose weight. It contains psyllium, barley, fructose, green-tea extract, chromium picolinate and 5-HTP--common dietary supplements purported to promote satiety and perhaps increase the rate at which the body burns calories.

Level Best is aimed at people with type 2 diabetes and is designed to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. It too contains psyllium, barley and fructose but adds red yeast (said to lower blood cholesterol) and willow bark (purported to help reduce blood clots).

Consumers will open a packet of powder, mix it with water and use the drink to swallow a pill that contains added ingredients. Bob Jones, president and chief executive of Functional Foods, says the company devised this approach after some ingredients proved too unpalatable to consume except by pill.

Company literature touts the "scientifically sound" foundation of the products. Functional Foods notes that carefully controlled snacking can play a helpful role in weight loss and asserts that some ingredients may help raise metabolic rate and could promote loss of fat while preserving muscle.

But others take a more skeptical approach, partly because the products are intended for people who have serious--and potentially life-threatening--medical conditions. Lean On Me and Level Best "look like snack foods that have some macronutrients in it," said Robert H. Eckel, chairman of the American Heart Assn.'s Nutrition Committee and a physician who treats people with both heart disease and diabetes.

For now, Eckel does not recommend either product. "Does the implementation of a structured snack do anything to curb bingeing?" he said. "We don't know that."

The maker of Level Best and Lean On Me underscores that the products will be marketed mostly to physicians, who will make referrals to patients, rather than to consumers themselves.

Marian Parrott, vice president of clinical affairs for the American Diabetes Assn., noted consumers can get the same health benefits much less expensively by doing such things as eating a high-fiber diet or simply taking a daily aspirin.

"If you really need a cholesterol-lowering drug, you should be on that rather than a supplement," she said. And people with diabetes "should never take any vitamin supplement or herbal product without first consulting their primary-care provider, because they can interfere with other drugs, including insulin," Parrott said.

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