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Looking better all the time

Bearers of 'good' fat, nuts are in favor once again.

October 13, 2003|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

Just a few years ago, nuts were dietary pariahs.

The perception was that they were fattening. And in the early '90s, fat was bad. Even the American Dietetic Assn. was recommending nuts only for weight gain.

By 1996, U.S. nut sales had dropped almost 40% from the lofty figures of the late 1980s. Then came the science. One after another, researchers have now shown that people who regularly eat nuts appear to have lower cholesterol levels and may have a decreased risk of heart disease. They've also found that nuts can satisfy appetites without causing weight gain.

Today, not only have nuts reappeared in kitchens nationwide, but the Food and Drug Administration in July granted manufacturers of certain types of nuts the right to place a "qualified" health claim on their products. Such permission means there is moderate evidence of a health benefit -- but too few studies to say with scientific certainty that nuts can, for example, reduce the risk of heart disease.

"In the food industry, it's one of the fastest turnarounds I've ever seen," says Pat Kearney, a consultant to the nut industry and a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official.

The story of nuts' transformation from an almost forbidden food to a healthy one is part of the dramatic reappraisal of the role of fat in the diet, experts say.

Throughout the 1990s, most nutrition experts preached that low-fat diets were healthiest. More recent studies have indicated that the type of fat matters most and that some fat is good.

Fats are mixtures of fatty acids that fall into the categories of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated depending on their chemical composition. Saturation refers to whether all of the carbon atoms in the fatty acid chains are bonded to hydrogen atoms. In saturated fat -- found in high-fat cuts of meat, whole or 2% dairy products, palm oil and other foods -- all of the carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen. This chemical composition tends to raise "bad" cholesterol in the body.

Unsaturated fat -- found in olive and canola oils in addition to most nuts -- has a space where a hydrogen atom would be and contains a double bond between carbon atoms. This chemical composition does not cause cholesterol to rise.

"People now recognize the dangers of saturated fat and that nuts have the right sort of fat," says Dr. David Jenkins, a nutrition researcher at the University of Toronto.

In a study published in the July 23 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn., Jenkins showed that including almonds in the diet along with other cholesterol-lowering foods such as tofu, oat bran and olive oil was as effective as cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.

That study was only the latest in a line of positive research demonstrating that the fat in nuts isn't "bad" fat. A 1999 study from Pennsylvania State University, for example, found that people who adhered to a weight-loss diet high in unsaturated fats (provided by peanuts, which is technically a legume, and peanut butter) lowered their total cholesterol by 11% and their low-density lipoprotein, or bad, cholesterol by 14%. The diet contained 35% of calories from fat, but because the fat was mostly unsaturated, the subjects lost weight and lowered their cholesterol in levels similar to a group on a diet containing less than 20% of calories from fat.

A June 2002 study from Harvard University showed that people who ate nuts regularly had a lower risk of sudden cardiac death. And in November 2002, a study of more than 83,000 nurses found that eating nuts may help lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Scientists now suggest that the complete chemical structure of many nuts -- unsaturated fat, protein, fiber and such antioxidant vitamins and minerals as vitamin E and magnesium -- has a medicinal effect. Nuts also contain a substance called resveratrol, which is increasingly thought to have antioxidant and anticancer properties.

Nuts have been part of the human diet since the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia. "They have been preserved in the diet as valued foods. They've really been a part of so many cardiovascular disease-free cultures," such as those in the Mediterranean, Jenkins says.

But in contemporary culture, nuts are often roasted in hydrogenated oils and smothered in salt. "That has been a disaster because it raises cholesterol and blood pressure," he adds.

Today, the nut industry is trying to portray its product in a new light. Although consumers can still find plenty of roasted, salted nuts in 32-ounce cans and nuts folded into sugary confections, their nutritionally higher-brow cousins can be found in produce sections of grocery stores and in healthy, whole-grain cereals and breads.

Besides lobbying long and hard for the FDA health claim, the nut industry has invested about $1 million per year for the last eight years in research, says Craig Duerr, of the Almond Board of California in Modesto.

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