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Do not be fooled by artificial "heart wise" foods
2009-06-18

Go into any grocery store nowadays and you‘ll find lots of processed food products aimed at attracting the "heart wise" shopper who‘s trying to lower his or her cholesterol. You‘ll find "heart smart" juices, milk, popcorn, spreads, and breads down just about every aisle.

I‘m not a big fan of these gimmicky processed foods. One of the worst types of offenders, in my opinion, is the "heart-smart" margarine spreads. These products pull you in with promises of delivering delicious and all-natural ingredients that help lower your cholesterol. But how do they get away with this, when most products are nothing more than plastic butter?

A wolf in sheep‘s clothing?

These products can be very confusing to most shoppers. And I suspect that‘s intentional on the part of the marketers. Take for instance a product like Smart Balance Buttery Spread™. This product claims to improve your "cholesterol ratio" because it contains plant sterols.

Plant sterols have been in the press a lot lately because they have been shown to modestly help lower cholesterol. In fact, one clinical trial recently published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that sterol-containing margarine helped to lower cholesterol. In the study, 19 volunteers consumed sterol-containing margarine or control margarine three times per day for six days. At the end of the study, for those in the sterol-containing margarine group their LDL (or bad) cholesterol was lowered by 6 percent.

Now come on. I could probably drum up a study of 19 people showing that drinking three glasses of water a day lowers cholesterol by 6 percent. To be honest, I‘m disappointed that a study of this poor caliber got published at all, much less the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition!

A rose by any other name...

Now-I‘m not discounting the fact that plant sterols have been shown to improve your overall health (not just cardiovascular), I‘m just wondering if we really need to get them by eating artificial junk like margarine.

Margarine is still margarine, no matter how you spread it. In fact, you can add all the plant sterols and omega-3s that you want to a product like Smart Balance™, but it‘s still filled with artificial ingredients. Just take a close look at the ingredients in Smart Balance™. The list is half a mile long and most of the stuff you won‘t recognize.

Furthermore, you don‘t have to eat plastic margarine to get your plant sterols. Go natural instead. You can get plenty of plant sterols by eating lots of fruits and vegetables. (Hey, there‘s a novel idea!) In fact, you can also get plant sterols by eating nuts, seeds, and whole grain cereals.

Questioning the problem of "high" cholesterol

The second problem I have with products like Smart Balance™ is their premise: to lower your cholesterol.

In most cases-if you are following healthy eating habits-you shouldn‘t worry too much about lowering your cholesterol. In fact, we all need a certain amount of cholesterol to function. Each and every cell in our body contains cholesterol. It helps maintain proper digestion, blood sugar, hormonal balance, and neurological function. Cholesterol also helps the body repair itself. In fact, scar tissue cells contain high amounts of cholesterol.

Plus-lots of scientists believe high cholesterol doesn‘t increase your risk of dying from a heart attack (likewise, low cholesterol doesn‘t protect you from suffering a heart attack). In fact, according to a 2009 study almost 75 percent of heart attack patients have normal, healthy cholesterol levels.

(As a side note, homocysteine and C-reactive protein levels are much better indicators of overall cardiovascular health than cholesterol. For more on cholesterol, homocysteine, C-reactive protein and my healthy eating tips, search through past issues of my Guide to Good Health at http://www.northstarnutritionals.com)

Go ahead and spread


So remember to read food labels carefully on your next trip to the grocery store. A product may appear healthy due to some brilliant marketing-but take a close look at the list of ingredients. Do you need a technical food dictionary to figure out what‘s in it? If so, chances are it‘s not good for you.

And lastly, if you‘re looking to spread a little something on your whole grain toast in the morning, opt for butter instead (Organic, of course.) Use it sparingly if you‘re trying to watch your weight. But it‘s a whole lot healthier for you than "fortified" plastic butter.



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These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Consumers are cautioned to read all labels and follow all directions. You should always consult with your physician before using these or any such products. Pregnant or lactating women, or anyone with any illness should consult with their medical doctor prior to taking these products.