Fact of fad? Nutritional breakthroughs to know about

Food designers are coming up with new products to meet the demand of consumers.

May 1, 1994

28 Min Read
Fact of fad_Nutritional breakthroughs to know about.jpg

If only designing nutritionally sound food products were as simple as cutting fat or sodium without sacrificing taste and texture. In the last few years, industry leaders like Campbell Soup, Kraft General Foods and Nabisco Foods have risen to that challenge repeatedly; the fruits of their research are now staples at most supermarkets, taking up shelf space that the natural-food companies can only dream of gaining. Things get a little more complicated, though, when it comes to deciding which types of fats and oils to cut and how to replace them. Conflicting studies seem to abound, touting the benefits of one type over the other. And when it comes to adding nutrients that are now marketing hot-buttons, like calcium and fiber, the same confusion seems to reign. This nutritional cacophony is bound to tax the patience of the food designer – if he isn't done in first by the demands of his colleagues in marketing, as well as the inherent complexities of formulating a food with non-traditional components.

Virtually all nutritionists and dietitians agree that most Americans could stand to cut plenty of sodium and especially fat from their diets; hence the emphasis given these two macronutrients in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's new labeling regulations. Most also agree that Americans should try to limit their consumption of saturated fats to only 10% of their total daily fat intake; again, the prominence of saturated fat on the new Nutrition Facts panel reflects this consensus. The reason for the emphasis on saturated fat, of course, is its role in increasing the level of serum cholesterol and hence the risk of coronary heart disease.

"A tremendous source of misinformation to the public is the emphasis by food companies that products such as vegetable oils contain no cholesterol; this plays on the consumer's recognition of cholesterol as a risk factor [for heart disease], but ignores the importance of saturated fat," according to Donald Hunninghake, M.D., a professor at the University of Minnesota Hospital Center's Heart Disease Prevention Clinic and a member of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) expert panel.

Food designers would be well advised to come up with new products that have little or no saturated fat, because cholesterol-conscious consumers are a potentially lucrative market. According to a new report from the NCEP, about 35% of all Americans still need to reduce their blood cholesterol levels – and about 29% percent can achieve this goal through dietary changes alone, without drug therapy.

More reasons to focus on fat

In addition, fat – especially saturated fat – has been linked to several types of cancer. For instance, a National Cancer Institute investigator recently reported at an American Cancer Society meeting that saturated fat intake seems to be a risk factor for lung cancer. Epidemiologist Michael Alavanja compared the diets of 600 nonsmoking women who were diagnosed with lung cancer and the diets of 1,400 healthy women, also nonsmokers. According to Alavanja, the women who derived more than 40% of their total calories from fat were at the highest risk, whereas women who derived fewer than 30% of their total calories from fat were at the lowest risk. A reduction in their intake of saturated fat appeared to provide more protection than an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption alone, the Harvard Health Letter reports. And last year, a study published in Epidemiology also found that both men and women with high-fat diets were at increased risk for lung cancer.

Dietary fat has been implicated as a risk factor for breast cancer as well. In a 1991 study, University of Toronto researchers showed that a woman's risk for developing breast cancer increased along with her consumption of fat. Other studies, mainly involving dietary comparisons or animal models, have corroborated that conclusion. Still others have not – the most reputable being the Harvard Nurses' Health Study, which analyzed the dietary intake of more than 85,000 nurses over the course of 8 years. Now the National Cancer Institute is supporting dietary intervention trials comparing incidence of breast cancer among women who eat lowfat and high-fat diets.

The role of dietary fat in heart disease and cancer may get the most press, but fat has been linked to other diseases. According to a report in Diabetes Care, fat consumption may contribute to the development of adult-onset diabetes in people with impaired glucose tolerance. In a three-year study of 123 such patients, the subjects who developed diabetes had the highest mean consumption of dietary fat: 43.4% of their total calories. Those who consumed 40.6% percent fat did not develop the disease, and those whose consumption was 38.9% actually converted to normal glucose tolerance. While dietary fat has not been established as a cause of adult-onset diabetes, such research raises the possibility. Of course, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have long been associated with adult-onset diabetes. Nor has a direct link between dietary fat and arthritis been established, but research suggests that it may one day be made.

A study conducted by Norwegian researchers, who published their results in the October 1991 Lancet, showed that proteins and fats from animal-derived foods – including dairy products – exacerbated rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. The researchers insisted, however, that they had not proven that these foods cause the symptoms. And, at present, the Arthritis Foundation has no official position on diet as a potential risk factor. However, it does recommend a low-fat, high-fiber diet for many other reasons, not the least of which is that obesity is a contributing factor for osteoarthritis – the most common form of the disease.

Indeed, the role of diet as either a risk or a preventive factor for many diseases has been gaining widespread acceptance in the last few years, due in no small measure to the work of Dean Ornish, M.D., at the University of California, San Francisco.

Ornish's landmark study, conducted during the late 1980s, used angiograms to show that major dietary and lifestyle changes actually reduced arterial blockage, or the build-up of plaque, in 18 out of his group of 22 heart patients. His program included exercise, meditation, group support – and a near-vegan diet in which total fat comprised only 10% of their daily caloric intake. Ornish's control group stuck with the recommendations of health organizations such as the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, and the American Diabetes Association, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture: a varied diet in which no more than 30% of calories are derived from fat. They showed no improvement at best, and in some cases, their conditions deteriorated.

Ornish was not the first to explore the link between dietary fat and heart disease; Nathan Pritikin, M.D., did his pioneering work in the 1970s, and others followed. But within the nutrition-professional community, Ornish has achieved almost the same level of name recognition as Pritikin because he was the first to prove that diet without drugs can reduce not just blood cholesterol levels, but arterial blockage as well.

Still, his recommendations to limit dietary fat to only 10% of one's total caloric intake, and to virtually eliminate saturated fat, have been questioned by some health and nutrition professionals who think the plan is unnecessarily strict for the general population. Although Ornish's books are replete with recipes that have extremely low levels of fat and sodium, a frequent criticism has been that most people don't cook every meal from scratch, and do like an occasional splurge.

The concept has yet to be brought to the general public in the form of prepared meals, which may be one sign that unless they're under doctor's orders, most people probably won't go that far. After Ornish's first book was published in 1990, ConAgra signed him to help develop a line of frozen foods that met his criteria. ConAgra test-marketed Life Choice meals for a year, and then decided in late 1993 to pull them from the market and make them available only through the company's mail-order operation.

Moderate reductions in fat have proven to be a more marketable strategy with other lines, including some of the Lean Cuisine entrees from Nestle's Stouffer Foods, and The Budget Gourmet Light and Healthy entrees from Kraft General Foods. But several companies have been very successful with non-entree items, such as dressings, crackers and baked goods, that are either fat-free or low in fat.

Specifically, Kraft General Foods has been a pioneer in fat-free products, such as Entenmann's baked goods, Kraft salad dressings and mayonnaise, and its dairy brands such as Lite n' Lively and Sealtest. Recognizing the importance of reducing total fat intake, the company set out to develop foods that would help consumers make a gradual transition as opposed to an abrupt dietary rehaul, according to Sandy Morreale, R.D., a senior nutritionist with Kraft General Foods, Northfield, IL.

"Cheeses, yogurt, baked goods and salad dressings are all foods that would be hard for people to give up," says Morreale, which is why the company concentrated its efforts there.

In each of these areas, the KGF researchers achieved their taste, texture, and nutritional criteria by using blends of nonfat milk, egg white and other ingredients as opposed to a particular fat replacer. KGF did receive FDA approval for its Trailblazer fat substitute technology, although it is not currently in use. Others, such as The NutraSweet Company's Simplesse and Pfizer Inc.'s Litesse, have been approved for several applications, and FDA is now reviewing Procter & Gamble's petition to allow the use of Olestra in snack foods.

But fat replacement technology isn't the answer for every food product – nor for every consumer. Indeed, nutritional benefits have actually been attributed to more than one type of fat or oil recently. Research suggesting which types to shun and which to seek out have been so ubiquitous lately that consumers, and marketing executives who want to woo them, don't know what to heed first.

Trans action: The whole story

One of the latest buzzwords to emerge from the fray and leap into the pages of the consumer media is "trans fatty acids." These are unsaturated fats that occur naturally in some animal fats; they also are formed when vegetable oils are hydrogenated, making partially hydrogenated vegetable oils the biggest dietary source of trans fat.

Although trans fat is unsaturated, as early as the 1950s researchers were linking it to serum cholesterol levels, according to Environmental Nutrition. In 1990, Dutch researchers reported that trans fatty acids raised levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the so-called bad cholesterol that increases the risk of heart disease, while reducing levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), the "good" cholesterol that protects against heart disease.

This finding was corroborated in a USDA study funded by the Institute for Shortenings and Edible Oils, which found that diets high and moderately high in trans fat raised both total cholesterol levels and LDL levels. Although saturated fat was found to raise total cholesterol more than trans fat, only trans fat reduced levels of HDL, the "good" cholesterol. A Harvard School of Public Health study found the same thing, and the Harvard Nurses' study found an association between heart disease and the consumption of foods high in trans fatty acids.

Not surprisingly, the reports of these findings prompted consumer responses ranging from, "Does this mean we should avoid anything made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils," to, "Does this mean we can all go back to butter now?"

Fortunately for the food industry, most health and nutrition groups seem as unlikely to call for the removal of trans fat from the national food supply as they are to endorse butter over margarine. After all, saturated fats, which make up 30% to 50% of the total fat intake for most Americans, are much more prevalent than trans fats, which are believed to make up only 6% to 10%. For the most part, the American Heart Association and others are awaiting further evidence before taking a position on trans fatty acids.

In fact, most nutrition experts have remained firm in their recommendation to cut total dietary fat to 30%, to cut saturated fat intake to 10%, and not to get too worked up over the composition of the remaining daily fat quotient, regardless of the pros and cons of various mono- and polyunsaturates.

"People become so obsessed with a particular oil," says Neva Cochran, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "More important is watching your total fat intake, and trying to use more poly- or mono-unsaturates in place of saturated fat."

Oils: The pros and cons

If everyone were to take that advice, the food designer's job would be a lot easier. Despite the popular misconception, as those in the business know, there is no one fat or oil that contains only saturated, mono-unsaturated or polyunsaturated fat. Even lard and tallow contain all three types; in fact, the so-called tropical oils – coconut, palm and palm kernel – contain even higher percentages of saturated fat. Fortunately, like trans fatty acids, the tropical oils make up only a small percentage of dietary fat – 2% to 3% – for most Americans.

Generally, experts agree, either mono- or polyunsaturates are acceptable replacements for saturated fats in food products. But various studies have attributed unique advantages to each. According to research reported by the National Dairy Council, an Italian study showed an inverse association between intake of olive oil, which is the highest in mono-unsaturated fat, and blood cholesterol levels, glucose levels and systolic blood pressure. This finding suggests a possible protective role for monounsaturates against not only heart disease, but diabetes and hypertension.

According to the Dairy Council, subsequent research has corroborated that diets rich in mono-unsaturates can lower not only total cholesterol levels, but LDL levels as well. By contrast, polyunsaturates have been shown to reduce levels of HDL, or "good" cholesterol, which mono-unsaturates do not affect.

On the other hand, good news has been reported regarding certain specific polyunsaturates. Like mono-unsaturates, omega-6 acids, such as linoleic acid, have been shown to reduce both total cholesterol and LDL levels. And research suggests that omega-3 acids, such as linolenic acid, may prove to be useful in the prevention and treatment of a variety of diseases, including heart disease, cancer, hypertension and even rheumatoid arthritis.

Food marketers would be hard-pressed to capitalize on these potential benefits, in that FDA does not permit nutrition and health claims pertaining to fatty acids. But consumer publications have been touting the benefits of soybean oil, which is rich in essential fatty acids like linoleic and linolenic acids. In addition, epidemiological studies in China and Japan have linked regular consumption of soy-derived foods with reduced risk of certain cancers.

Similarly, fish-oil capsules, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, have become a popular dietary supplement. But mainstream health organizations, while recommending an increase in consumption of most kinds of fish, have not endorsed the capsule supplements because they say long-term side effects have not been ruled out. And again, experts agree that excessive consumption of any type of fat is contrary to overall recommendations to reduce fat intake. Consumer publications also have begun reporting that composition of dietary fat is not exactly as simple as saturated versus mono- or polyunsaturated. As nutritionists and food designers already know, consumers are learning that fatty acids are subcategorized based on carbon-chain length and on the number, location and type of bonds in the chain.

These factors have been found to affect serum cholesterol levels as well. It's the trans-type double bond, even in a mono-unsaturated fatty acid, that increases blood cholesterol, as opposed to the more common cis-type double bond. And stearic acid, a combination of medium- to short-chain saturated fatty acids, has been shown to have no effect on blood cholesterol levels. Regardless of these findings, FDA labeling regulations require that stearic acid be considered a saturated fat. Conversely, while the listing of both mono- and polyunsaturates is permitted, a break-out of trans fatty acid is not. So again, food designers would be hampered in any attempt to market a lack of harmful saturated or unsaturated fats, just as they would be if they tried to tout the benefits of fatty acids.

Despite such hurdles – and despite the current emphasis on saturated fat – there are some experts who would like to see food designers keep these other findings in mind. When it comes to fat consumption, "it's the quality as well as the quantity," says Joe D. Goldstrich, M.D., a Dallas cardiologist and author of the newly released The Cardiologist's Painless Prescription for a Healthy Heart and a Longer Life.

For example, Goldstrich cites canola oil, a current favorite among food marketers because it has less saturated fat than any other choice and is among the highest in mono-unsaturated fat. Although polyunsaturates usually have the most double bonds, canola also has 10% linolenic acid, which has three double bonds. The double bonds make it more subject to oxidation, which in turn will oxidize blood cholesterol; once the cholesterol is oxidized, it can then obstruct the arteries.

Canola is still among the best choices for both consumers and food designers, especially because of its apparent ability to lower clotting tendencies, Goldstrich says. But overall, he recommends olive oil, "if it will meet their taste tests."

Fiber optimum: Which is best?

As controversial as research into the relationship between dietary fat and various diseases has been, for a while it seemed that the study of dietary fiber was causing even more fireworks.

Oat bran, for instance, had been reported to help reduce serum cholesterol levels as early as the 1960s. In the late 1980s, it seemed to be the food ingredient of choice, cropping up in high-fat muffins, donuts and other applications that indicated both manufacturers and consumers were missing the point. Then, in 1990, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that oat bran alone did not reduce cholesterol levels, attributing those results to the elimination of saturated fat from the diet and its replacement with the oat bran.

Suddenly, oat bran devotees were branded the granola-heads of the 1990s. But since then, several studies have rescued the reputation of oat bran – or at least the soluble fiber within – as a cholesterol-reducing agent, combined with other appropriate dietary measures.

Among these was a 6-week study at the Chicago Center for Clinical Research at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, in which six groups of patients received various doses of oat bran or oatmeal daily, and a seventh control group was given farina instead. All seven groups followed the National Cholesterol Education Program diet for reducing serum cholesterol levels, but only the groups receiving the equivalent of either 2 oz. or 3 oz. of oat bran daily achieved marked reductions in total and LDL cholesterol. Their cholesterol counts returned to baseline levels during a subsequent 6-week period in which their oat bran was discontinued, even though they continued to follow the other diet modifications.

Nutritionists caution, however, that oat bran is not a panacea that can replace a lowfat diet. And as Neva Cochran of the American Dietetic Association points out, there are many other sources of soluble fiber, including beans and other grains such as barley. Food designers might also watch for research into psyllium, a soluble grain fiber, and pectin, a soluble fiber found in fruits and vegetables – two sources cited by Goldstrich. Other whole grains, such as corn, rice, rye and wheat, are primary sources of insoluble fiber, as are most vegetables. Repeated studies have shown that because of its bulking ability, insoluble fiber is associated with a decreased risk of colon cancer. But experts warn that most Americans need to concentrate on both. Ironically, Goldstrich says that excess consumption of soluble fiber alone may actually promote colon cancer, citing a study published in Gastroenterology. The obvious solution for food designers: muffins, cereals and other products that provide both insoluble and soluble fiber by combining different grains.

In fact, although the oat bran fervor has died down, the bakery industry still is among the best equipped to attract consumers seeking to boost their fiber intake. By now, the word is out that whole-grain breads, in which the flour retains the bran, are naturally higher in fiber.

Some companies are working on other types of bread that are also high in fiber. For instance, Campbell Taggart, St. Louis, is now test-marketing Essentials Bread under its Grant's Farm label. According to the company, Essentials is a white bread with the same fiber content as whole-wheat, achieved through the addition of soy hull fiber. Another Campbell Taggart white bread, IronKids, combines oat hull fiber and other ingredients to provide both soluble and insoluble fiber.

According to Susan Sikorski, R.D., a nutritionist with Campbell Taggart, it's possible – but not easy – to supplement breads with enough fiber to meet FDA's labeling requirements as a "good source." As an added bonus, since the insoluble fiber attracts more water into the system, and since it isn't digestible, it also lowers the calorie count.

Calcium: Availability emphasis

The bakery industry also is the latest to jump on the calcium bandwagon, which has long been the provence of the dairy industry. Already, though, experts are reportedly questioning whether Continental Baking's Wonder Calcium Enriched bread does indeed provide calcium in a bioavailable form.

As the dairy industry has long proclaimed, the calcium in dairy foods is naturally bound with other nutrients for maximum bioavailability. But when calcium is added to other foods, its bioavailability decreases. Still, it's worth further exploration. Bakers are already using calcium sulfate as a yeast nutrient. And although no studies exist showing how well humans absorb calcium sulfate, there could be a role for other forms such as calcium carbonate. The Procter & Gamble Company, Cincinnati, is one company that has thoroughly researched calcium bioavailability. Last year, the company introduced Double C Hawaiian Punch, which is fortified with a full day's worth of vitamin C and half the calcium of milk; in 1992, P&G introduced Sunny Delight Plus Calcium, a citrus beverage that provides a full day's supply of vitamin C and all the calcium of milk.

Both are fortified with FruitCal, P&G's patented brand of calcium citrate malate. In an 18-month study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that girls aged 12 to 14 who took in extra calcium grew significantly stronger bones.

Specifically, 47 girls were given an average of 350 grams of extra calcium citrate malate daily, whereas a control group of 47 girls received placebos. Their bone density was measured every 6 months, showing an overall increase of 20% for the group receiving the extra calcium. According to Tom Lloyd, Ph.D., a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and pharmacology at Penn State, this could translate into an increase of 6% by age 18, giving the girls significant protection against osteoporosis.

Recent findings that bone density stops increasing and starts declining at age 20 underscore the importance of calcium intake during childhood and adolescence. This is even earlier than most previous studies, which have found that bone density stops increasing sometime during the 30s. According to P&G spokeswoman Wendy Jacques, "Our approach was, Why not put calcium into beverages that [children and adolescents] consume on a regular basis anyway?"

This is not to say, however, that children and teenagers are the only groups that food designers should target. Evidence has been mounting that calcium can have a preventive role in not only osteoporosis, but hypertension, colon cancer and cholesterol levels, and possibly even kidney stones and even premenstrual syndrome.

Numerous animal and clinical human studies have established calcium's link with both osteoporosis and hypertension. In the case of colon cancer, the National Dairy Council last fall reported on several animal studies in addition to some recent clinical intervention trials in humans. In the latter, patients showed marked improvement on a daily dose of 2,000 mg of calcium carbonate – a difficult dosage for any one food product to supply.

Findings pertaining to blood lipid and lipoprotein levels point to a potential role for dietary calcium. When added to low-fat, low-cholesterol diets, extra calcium was found to protect against a decrease in levels of HDL, or "good" cholesterol. In addition, high-calcium diets were found to increase the excretion of saturated fatty acids.

Even more intriguing is a study reported in the Harvard Health Letter suggesting that contrary to accepted practice, dietary calcium could have a preventive effect against kidney stones. The Health Professionals Followup Study at the Harvard School of Public Health, an epidemiological study of 45,619 men, showed that relative risk for developing stones was 44% lower among men whose daily energy-adjusted calcium intake was 1,326 mg, compared with those whose intake was only 515 mg. One possible explanation, researchers said, is that the dietary calcium may reduce the body's supply of urinary oxalate, which may be more important than urinary calcium in the formation of stones.

As for PMS, the Dairy Council reports that a recent study involving 10 healthy women with normal menstrual cycles showed that those who consumed 1,300 mg of calcium a day experienced fewer symptoms than those consuming only 600 mg. But PMS is by no means the only reason for adult women to increase their calcium intake. Even though it is not possible to continue building bone mass past young adulthood, it may be possible to sustain bone density or slow the rate of bone loss during adulthood. Nutritionists agree that pre-menopausal women should take in 800 mg to 1,000 mg of calcium daily, combined with regular exercise and a balanced diet, to stave off bone density loss.

"I always try to encourage people to get their nutrients from food first, because other nutrients like lactose and vitamin D will increase absorption," says Neva Cochran, the American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. "If a person's unable to meet her calcium requirements through diet alone, then a supplement would be appropriate." Unfortunately, the average adult woman meets only about 70% of the recommended calcium intake. Calcium-fortified foods with maximum bioavailability could find a ready market among many women who are concerned about that statistic.

Most research into the effects of calcium on bone density have been concentrated on post-menopausal women, since menopause greatly accelerates bone density loss. Researchers at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found that healthy women who had undergone menopause more than 5 years earlier significantly reduced bone loss by increasing their daily calcium intake from 400 mg to 800 mg. According to the researchers, calcium citrate malate was more effective than calcium carbonate.

The elderly, too, could benefit from an increase in daily calcium consumption. A team of French researchers, reporting their results in the Dec. 2, 1992, New England Journal of Medicine, studied 3,270 ambulatory women living in nursing homes. Half the women were given 1.2 grams of elemental calcium and 800 IU of vitamin D; the other half received no supplements. After 18 months, the number of hip fractures was 43% lower, and the number of nonvertebral fractures was 32% lower, in the women who had taken the supplements.

Emerging role of antioxidants

Of all the nutritional buzzwords being bandied about in the consumer media, none has gained mainstream acceptability as fast as "antioxidants." These are vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. They are believed to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, and even to slow the aging process itself, by neutralizing the free radicals formed as a byproduct when the body metabolizes oxygen. In turn, this prevents the free radicals from oxidizing healthy cells.

Research into the effects of antioxidants has been abundant the past couple of years. The Harvard Nurses' study found that subjects taking at least 100 IU of vitamin E were 34% less likely to have a heart attack. The Health Professional study then found a 37% risk reduction in men. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, researchers linked vitamin E supplements with a 50% reduction in LDL oxidation, which would brunt the harmful potential of a high LDL count. And researchers at Tufts have demonstrated that dietary vitamin C not only lowered LDL levels, but also raised HDL levels and reduced blood pressure.

Beta carotene, alone or with vitamins C and E, has been shown by University of Arizona Cancer Center researchers to reverse the growth of oral leukoplakia, a precancerous condition. Population studies also have shown that high intakes of either vitamin C or foods rich in vitamin C reduced the risk of oral, esophagus, stomach and pancreatic cancers, according to The New York Academy of Sciences. And still other population studies have shown that women whose diets were rich in beta carotene, vitamin C and folic acid had a lower risk of cervical or endometrial cancer.

These are but a few of the many studies that have been reported recently or that are ongoing. Most involve either supplementation or a high intake of vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, or both. The Harvard studies, for instance, were based on vitamin E doses of 100 IU; the University of Texas studies were based on 800 IU. Both doses are considerably higher than the current 8 mg recommendation.

In his book, Goldstrich recommends supplementation with all three antioxidants, and several other vitamins and minerals depending on the reader's condition. He is not alone; Kenneth Cooper, M.D., founder of The Cooper Aerobic Center in Dallas, also recommends supplementation, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News.

For the most part, though, groups such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society are not yet recommending supplementation, although they continue to recommend frequent consumption of fruits, vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods.

As for a health claim pertaining to antioxidants, FDA is still reviewing the evidence. But that doesn't mean food designers are out of the loop. Fruit drinks have long been fortified successfully with vitamin C, which is water-soluble, and cereals are easily formulated to enrichment standards with the B vitamins and the mineral iron. The potential exists for enriching or fortifying other foods with vitamins E and A, which are fat soluble and therefore are not destroyed by heat processing. Any nutritional claims, of course, would have to meet FDA's minimum requirements.

No doubt, the facts will continue to emerge from the fracas surrounding antioxidants. And like low-fat, high-fiber or high-calcium foods, these probably will prove to be a boon for consumers – and for marketing-savvy food designers.

Andrea Horwich Allen is a freelance writer based in Dallas. She specializes in food business, regulatory and technology issues.

Editor's Note:

As this story was going to press, the New England Journal of Medicine reported the results of a new study that seemed to indicate that vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements may not only be ineffective against cancer and heart disease, but may actually cause some harm. The study, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute of Bethesda, MD, and the National Public Health Institute in Finland, involved 29,000 Finnish men aged 50 and older. All were long-term smokers, therefore at higher risk than the general population for developing heard disease and cancer. One group took vitamin E supplements; a second group took beta-carotene; a third group took both; and a control group took placebos. After 5 to 8 years, the researchers found no evidence that the supplements had prevented heart disease or lung cancer, although the vitamin E group had a 34% reduction in prostate cancer incidence. Further, the group actually had an 8% higher death rate.

Researchers involved in the study reportedly did not rule out the possibility that benefits might be discovered as the study continues. They also reportedly reaffirmed the importance of eating a diet high in vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, as nutritionists have been saying all along.

Cholesterol-reducing grains come into the light

In the realm of cholesterol-reducing food ingredients, it sometimes is difficult to look beyond the shadow of oat bran. Other potential ingredients, such as rice bran, also demonstrate a cholesterol-lowering effect. In fact, several products incorporating rice bran were introduced in 1990 – the year following publication of several studies that substantiated the cholesterol-lowering properties of the ingredient. Many of these rice bran studies were conducted by, or in cooperation with, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The various studies used a wide variety of experimental designs in a diverse collection of species, including hamsters, rats, rabbits, monkeys and humans. The collected data almost universally indicate that rice bran does indeed reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) serum cholesterol. Furthermore, the studies indicate that the significant portion of rice bran's hypocholesterolemic properties are contained within its lipid fraction – making rice bran oil another possibility as an ingredient. So, why aren't the shelves filled with rice-bran containing products? Well, the year that many such products did indeed arrive in stores happened to be the same year that a study countering out bran's effectiveness sent the nationwide fiber frenzy on the skids. Can living in oat bran's shadow be a double-edged sword? Industry sources answer with an unqualified "yes." Considering that consumers still long for more nutritional foods designed for health benefits, it's unfortunate that some ingredients, like rice bran, seem to remain in the shadows. Perhaps a closer look by product designers can help bring some of these into the light.

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