Consumers Turn to Food to Lower LDL Cholesterol

Many people are turning to foods before they try drugs to lower their LDL cholesterol, and the food industry is well-armed to respond.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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Already a source of probiotics, Stonyfield yogurt adds prebiotics and the cholesterol-lowering power of the soluble fiber in inulin.
Already a source of probiotics, Stonyfield yogurt adds prebiotics and the cholesterol-lowering power of the soluble fiber in inulin.

Some fats lower cholesterol

Most people with elevated cholesterol have been warned by their doctors to avoid eating saturated fats, which tend to raise LDL cholesterol levels. However, monounsaturated fats, like those in almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, olives and avocados, both lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.

Walnuts are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which also have long been known to lower cholesterol. Yet many consumers still associate all fats, even healthy fats, with obesity, high blood cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Although healthy fats are finally getting the recognition they deserve as beneficial foods, their value in lowering blood cholesterol is not always appreciated.

Too many consumers are unaware cholesterol is found only in animal products. While healthy plant oils contain no cholesterol, they do carry the plant counterpart, plant sterols, aka phytosterols. Plant sterols are structurally similar to cholesterol and interfere with its absorption from diet. Sterols for food and beverage formulations are derived from plants such as soy and corn. They appear as "free" sterols, the basic form of the ingredient, and sterol esters, that is, esterified to improve their solubility in oil.

"Conclusions from dozens of clinical studies conducted over the past 50 years show no significant difference in efficacy between the forms," says Pam Stauffer, marketing programs manager for Cargill Health & Food Technologies (, Minneapolis. "This is corroborated by the FDA's approval of the unqualified health claim for both sterols and sterol esters."

Plant sterols shun water, and so were first incorporated into fat-based applications such as margarines and spreads. Cargill uses a propriety processing technology to enable its CoroWise plant sterols to be incorporated into many other types of food and beverages.

Note to marketers

From soluble fibers to whole grains to products containing phytosterols, it has never been easier to create foods that fit into a healthy, cholesterol-managing lifestyle. By utilizing ingredients tailored for products that naturally help maintain healthy cholesterol levels, food companies can take advantage of the many FDA-permitted health claims on labels and in marketing materials for a newly expanded range of food products.

"The market for plant-sterol containing products continues to grow," adds Stauffer. "Minute Maid Heart Wise orange juice with CoroWise was introduced in fall 2003. Since then, many other products have been introduced, including Nature Valley Healthy Heart chewy granola bars, VitaTops Vitamuffins, Rice Dream Heartwise rice drink, Lifetime low-fat cheese, GNC Heart Advance. One of the benefits for our customers is CoroWise does not negatively impact the taste and texture of the finished product."

Sterols spring up

The National Institute of Health (NIH), through the National Cholesterol Education Program, suggests Americans should consider plant sterols as a therapeutic lifestyle change for reducing cholesterol. And a 2003 review published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings states that eating foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and high in sterols, could reduce LDL cholesterol by 20 percent.

"The scientific evidence supporting the ability of plant sterols to lower serum cholesterol levels is reflected by the FDA heath claim -- which is an unqualified health claim more simply known as an 'A' level health claim," says, Brent Flickinger, senior research manager of nutritional science for ADM (, Decatur, Ill. ADM's CardioAid plant sterols provide "effective, dietary method for countering elevated cholesterol."

In January this year, the FDA greatly expanded the GRAS categories for CardioAid plant sterols. "Until today, the range of food products which could be fortified under GRAS status with plant sterols was very narrow," said Steven Furcich, president of ADM Natural Health & Nutrition. "However, ADM's letter from the FDA now allows food companies to incorporate CardioAid brand sterols into many of their other consumer products. No other sterol ingredient available today has been evaluated for so many new GRAS food categories," he claims.

According to Graham Keen, ADM's vice president for corporate marketing, food companies now can incorporate CardioAid into mayonnaise, dressings, sauces, cereals, vegetable oils, beverages, salty snacks and processed soups.

Aristo bars add plant sterols to combat serum cholesterol, as well as cholesterol-managing ingredients omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.
Aristo bars add plant sterols to combat serum cholesterol, as well as cholesterol-managing ingredients omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.

Another unique application of plant sterols is their use as an addition in meal replacement/energy bars. "Our wellness bars offer the desired amount of sterols per serving required by the FDA to make the official Heart Health claim," says Gursh Bindra, CEO of Aristo Health Inc. (, Morristown, N.J. Aristo bars also are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, other cholesterol-managing ingredients, as well as antioxidant-rich superfruits, such as açai, pomegranate, cranberry and goji.

Dairy pitches in

Other foods that can use plant sterols include dairy and similar products, such as puddings, soymilk, ice cream, cream, cream substitutes, yogurt and cheese.

We rarely think of drinking milk as a way to lower cholesterol, but the folks at Promised Land Dairy ( do. "Your Ultimate Milk" is the result of their vision. "These products came about as we studied a variety of health issues and ingredient opportunities to lend a hand toward increased health," says Rodger Johnson, spokesman for the San Antonio-based company.

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