Cholesterol serves multiple important purposes. It's the precursor to steroid hormones and vitamin D; it helps form the bile acids that aid fat digestion; and it stabilizes membranes. But in the wrong place at the wrong time for some of us, cholesterol can earn its bad reputation.
The so-called "bad" cholesterol is that fraction transported from liver to tissues via low-density proteins (LDLs). Lipoproteins are particles that encapsulate fatty material and transport it through the blood. High-density lipoproteins (HDLs) move cholesterol in the opposite direction, from tissues to liver, a task that earns these smaller particles their "good cholesterol" nickname.
LDL cholesterol is thought to put us at risk for heart disease, via the participation of cholesterol in atherosclerotic plaque, while HDLs are believed to mitigate the risk. Since cardiovascular disease is still the No. 1 cause of death globally, manipulating cholesterol numbers -- lowering the former and raising the latter -- has become the quintessential dietary health strategy.
Though heredity is an important determinant in LDL and HDL levels, diet can be the first line of defense against hypercholesterolemia. Eating cholesterol-laden foods has less of an effect on serum cholesterol than previously believed -- even the most stringent avoidance diet can be hard-put to drop cholesterol levels more than 20 percent. However, eating the tools -- the right foods and ingredients -- to lower cholesterol is where diet is important.
Start the day right
Few breakfast foods are as traditional as oats, which made Quaker Oats a household name long before cholesterol was a hot topic. When research on health benefits of soluble fiber first broke in the 1970s, oats were the grain most nutrition experts pointed to as a way to help lower cholesterol. But at the time few cold cereals were low-sugar, healthful sources of fiber.
"Smart Start Healthy Heart is the first national cold cereal containing the oat bran that may help lower cholesterol," says Zack Madden, account coordinator for Kellogg's (www.kelloggs.com), Battle Creek, Mich. Smart Start Healthy Heart is available in Original, Cinnamon Raisin and Maple Brown Sugar flavors. The cereal contains 2g soluble fiber from oat bran per serving. Three grams of soluble fiber daily from oat bran in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Nature's Path Organic Foods (www.naturespath.com), Richmond, British Columbia, added SmartBran to its EnviroKidz, LifeStream and Optimum cereal line-up. "SmartBran is a natural extension," explains founder and CEO Arran Stephens. "SmartBran is the best source of heart-healthy, gut-healthy soluble fiber out there -- bar none," he claims.
SmartBran is the first certified-organic, high-fiber cereal with psyllium. It features three different sources of dietary fiber: psyllium, oat and wheat, totaling 13g of dietary fiber per serving.
Soluble fiber comes in many guises. Inulin is a unique form that consists of linked fructose sugars. Untouched by our digestive enzymes, inulin becomes food for friendly gut bacteria. "Historically, humans have eaten significantly large amounts of inulin. The highest food concentrations occur in dahlia tubers, burdock roots, chicory roots, artichokes and greens -- foods not traditionally eaten in large amounts these days.
The addition of inulin can provide soluble fiber in unexpected places. "Yogurt is a traditional source of probiotics, but with the addition of inulin, yogurt adds prebiotics to the mix and the potential for lowering blood cholesterol," says Carmelle Druchniak, senior communications manager for Stonyfield Farm (www.stonyfield.com), Londonderry, N.H.
Stonyfield obtains inulin in powder form from Orafti Group (www.orafti.com), Malvern, Pa., which derives inulin from chicory root via a natural, hot-water distilling process.
Because inulin is a soluble fiber, it helps maintain normal bowel function, decreases constipation, lowers cholesterol and triglycerides and helps normalize blood sugar levels. Inulin has been used as both a fat substitute and a sugar substitute. "Its slightly sweet taste and smooth texture improves the eating experience of low-fat and fat-free foods," says Druchniak.
"Research is demonstrating the nutritional value of inulin goes beyond what is typical of most classical fibers. Inulin has been shown to increase calcium absorption in adolescents and post-menopausal women by as much as 20 percent. As a prebiotic, inulin increases the growth of probiotics in the large intestine. This essentially adds a new site for calcium absorption," adds Druchniak.