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Snacks get a hearty boost

New foods with sterols, fiber and omega-3s aim to improve cholesterol. Should you bite?

August 20, 2007|Francesca Lunzer Kritz | Special to The Times

Need to lower your LDL? Try milk and cookies. Or maybe orange juice. Or tortilla chips.

Increasingly, companies are adding heart-healthy sterols, soluble fiber and omega-3s to processed foods and beverages. And these nutrients are in high demand.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Fat-free milk: An article in the Aug. 20 Health section on new foods designed to lower cholesterol contained an incorrect reference to a fat-free milk. The product is called Active Lifestyle, not Active Living.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, September 03, 2007 Home Edition Health Part F Page 9 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Fat-free milk: An article in the Aug. 20 Health section on new foods designed to lower cholesterol contained an incorrect reference to a fat-free milk. The product is called Active Lifestyle, not Active Living.

Sterols and soluble fiber are recommended by the National Institutes of Health's National Cholesterol Education Program as part of a larger plan for lowering "bad," or LDL cholesterol. Omega-3s are catching on for -- among other things -- their ability to lower triglycerides, a fat that increases the risk of heart disease if levels are too high.

Active Living, a new fat-free milk being sold at Ralphs and Food 4 Less supermarkets in the Los Angeles area, comes with added plant sterols. Right Directions oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip cookies (sold, for now, on the Internet only) also contain sterols as well as soluble fiber. Those are just two items on a growing list of foods recently introduced that promise to get your cholesterol levels headed in the right direction -- including omega-3 enhanced Tropicana orange juice, Corazonas tortilla chips with sterols in every bag, Promise Activ SuperShots yogurt and fruit mini-drinks with sterols and Breyers Smart! yogurt with DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid.

New food processing techniques have allowed manufacturers to enhance their products with these heart-healthy nutrients without changing the food's taste or texture, says Julie Upton, a registered dietitian with practices in New York City and San Francisco.

The nutrient trio is particularly desirable for food manufacturers because they already have Food and Drug Administration clearance to carry a health claim saying the nutrients may prevent heart disease, allowing manufacturers to instantly add that wording to containers, bags and boxes.

But, Alice, before you drink this or eat that from the supermarket wonderland, keep in mind that these aren't magic chips, cookies and juice.

"You can't just add these new foods to an unhealthy diet, and expect your LDL or triglycerides to suddenly plummet," says cardiologist Dr. Karol Watson of UCLA. "That will only add calories and, ultimately, extra pounds, which brings its own risk of heart disease," she says. "Optimum use of these new foods," she adds, "means substituting them for other, less healthy foods you're likely eating now."

One might expect the nation's heart disease and nutrition experts to scoff at tortilla chips and chocolate chip cookies as a path to lower cholesterol. Not all of them do. New and effective ideas are most welcome, says Joy Bauer, a New York- based registered dietitian who recently helped Shaquille O'Neal with his ABC reality show for overweight kids. That's because too many Americans are still battling high cholesterol.

A recent study in the journal Women's Health Issues found that only 55% of insured white men and 46% of insured white women who set cholesterol-lowering goals with their doctors had reached them. Insured African American men and women fared even more poorly. Worse still were the numbers for uninsured Americans.

How low do we need to go? Despite public service campaigns and incessant TV ads for cholesterol-lowering drugs, about one-third of Americans have LDL cholesterol levels that are too high by an average of about 30%, says Dr. James Howard, head of the Lipid Center at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., and a member of the NIH panel that drew up national guidelines for cholesterol-lowering goals.

Most people could quickly drop down by taking a daily cholesterol-lowering medication known as a statin such as Lipitor or simvastatin, the generic version of Zocor, a once-blockbuster cholesterol drug that became available as a generic a few months ago.

But the cholesterol guidelines recommend immediate medication after a high cholesterol diagnosis only for people with a 20% or higher risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years -- for example, anyone with a total cholesterol level of over 200 combined with high blood pressure. (You can calculate your own risk at www.nhlbi.nih.gov: Click on "Health Assessment Tools," then click on "10-Year Heart Attack Risk Calculator.")

There are several reasons why the pill recommendations aren't broader, Howard says. For one thing, Lipitor costs about $90 per month for those without insurance. And statins do have rare but serious side effects.

And other methods of reducing cholesterol levels, such as weight loss, exercise and reducing saturated fat intake, may help prevent not only heart disease but other medical conditions such as diabetes and stroke.

It all adds up

Before you start loading up the cart with, say, Mars' new, sterol-enriched, CocoaVia chocolate bars, pull out your iPhone, Palm Pilot or at least a pen and pencil. The foods are nutrient enhanced, not calorie-free. Do the math, Upton says, or you -- and your grocery bill -- could soon balloon.

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