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A Burger A Day (video)
July 05, 2002

Interviewee: Oksana Matvienko, Iowa State University.

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Produced by Joyce Gramza

Copyright © Center for Science and the Media, with footage from Iowa State University.

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Elsewhere on the web

Plant Stanol Esters fact sheet - ADA

Third Report of the Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults - NIH

Live Healthier, Live Longer

"Iceberg ahead for heart health’s magic bullets" - New Nutrition Business

Imagine eating a burger a day to keep high cholesterol at bay.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, scientists have a way to make heart-healthy hamburgers.

Not so novel?

Cholesterol-reducing ground beef may sound counterintuitive, but the scientists from Iowa State University who cooked up this idea say it’s not all that novel.

"Plant sterols are wonderful compounds that have been known for many years to lower cholesterol levels in people," says Douglas Lewis, an author of the research published in the June 2002 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Plant sterols are natural plant compounds that are structurally similar to cholesterol, yet most people’s digestive systems don’t absorb them. Instead, they block peoples’ absorption of cholesterol—particularly LDL or "bad" cholesterol. The scientists used sterols extracted from soybeans, but they are also found in nuts and other food crops. Plant sterols extracted from the wood of pine trees are the active ingredient in the cholesterol-reducing margarine Benecol.

The scientists got funding from food giant ConAgra to see if adding plant sterols to foods that young people find appealing would turn them into cholesterol-reducers. In their double-blind study of 34 male graduate students with above-normal blood cholesterol, half of the volunteers ate a daily lunch made with regular lean ground beef, while the other half got ground beef that was beefed up with plant sterols.

After one month, "those young men who consumed ground beef with plant sterols had a 10 percent reduction in their total cholesterol and 14.6 percent in their LDL cholesterol," says Oksana Matvienko, a study author at Iowa State’s Center for Designing Foods to Improve Nutrition.

"We hope that the food industry takes advantage of our findings and produces more products that contain plant sterols because they’re very effective and safe... and very beneficial for people who have high cholesterol levels," Matvienko says.

Primary Prevention

The scientists targeted young men because while cardiovascular disease is their number-one killer later in life, heart disease is a problem that starts in childhood. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that everyone age 20 and older should have their blood cholesterol measured at least once every 5 years

And with the success of cholesterol-reducing drugs called statins, "there’s a debate in the research community over primary prevention versus secondary prevention," says Lewis, who now heads the department of Human Nutrition & Food Science at Cal Poly-Pomona.

Secondary prevention means intervening after a patient has cardiovascular disease, Lewis says, while primary prevention means trying to prevent the onset of disease in high-risk individuals. "I agree with primary prevention," Lewis says, "but not necessarily with drugs."

If you’re in your early twenties and find out you are at risk, "your doctor will say, ’change your diet’," Lewis says. But "many people find that difficult to do." Instead, "let’s look at foods that get you into trouble," he says, "and let’s change the food and get them to deliver the nutrients found in healthy foods."

Functional Foods Still New

Functional foods like plant sterols are defined by the International Food Information Council as "foods or their components which may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition."

They’re still so new, in fact, that experts are still not sure what to call them. "Although the term ’functional foods’ may not be the ideal descriptor for this emerging food category, recent focus-group research... showed that this term was recognized more readily and was also preferred by consumers over other commonly used terms such as ’nutraceutical’ or ’designer foods’," states a 1999 position paper by the American Dietetic Association.

However, as the paper also adds, "the regulation of functional foods remains confusing."

While plant sterols are "Generally Recognized As Safe" by the FDA, some nutrition experts raised safety concerns—among them, that certain people whose digestive systems absorb plant sterols (a rare genetic disorder called sitosterolemia) ought to be warned against them.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health’s National Cholesterol Education Program suggests high-risk patients add cholesterol-lowering food products to their diet; but the American Heart Association’s position statement recommends eating a balanced diet that will naturally contain plant sterols, and that more research should be done.

by Joyce Gramza

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