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By Heidi Parsons, Contributing Editor | 12/05/2012
As Baby Boomers hit their 60s, worries over cardiovascular health loom large. Even after years of emphasis on diet as a key component in keeping a healthy beat, heart disease persists in topping the list of what kills us.
For a generation that grew up understanding the value of things like phytochemicals and whole grains, there had to be more. Sure enough, ingredient scientists have been hard at work discovering new compounds and teasing out new aspects of already known heart-healthy ingredients.
The knowledge that certain fibers and starchy fiber mimics such as resistant starch are good for the cardiovascular system has been undergoing a fine-tuning as experts learn which types, fractions and structures of fiber are most efficacious and for which functions. While some fibers work at countering plaque buildup by clearing cholesterol from the body, others have direct chemical reactions that positively affect blood flow and still others simply replace fat calories. One new carbohydrate-derived form recently on the scene is alpha-cyclodextrin.
Cyclodextrins are large rings of amylose starch that can be classified as a non-digestible fiber. In 2009, they were discovered to have the ability to clear cholesterol and fat from cells or "capturing" fat in systems. This is because the outer ring of the molecule is hydrophilic and soluble, while the inner portion of the ring attracts lipids — up to nine times its weight in lipid, according to a study cited by SOHO Flordis International Inc., Sydney, Australia.
Following recent GRAS approval, SOHO Flordis now markets a-cyclodextrin, branded as FBCx. Previously sold as a "fat blocker" supplement, a-cyclodextrin is now available for application in foods and beverages. By taking up and eliminating fat, the compound helps reduce levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. It functions in formulations as a soluble dietary fiber and, according to the company, is colorless and odorless, with a neutral taste and a low viscosity (similar to sucrose).
Flax seeds have been enjoying a big jump in popularity for health benefits associated with omega fatty acids, which they contain in abundance as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Continuing research supports myriad benefits attributable to omegas, including a reduction of the inflammation response, improvement in nerve conduction and cognitive function and mitigation of diabetes symptoms and arthritis. But it seems as if the most-studied benefit, that of cardiovascular health, is getting lost. There are more than 2,000 published studies indicating omega-3 fatty acids can counter oxidative stress, protect the endothelial cells of the blood vessels, reduce blood triglycerides and even have a beneficial effect on arrhythmia.
Flax is not just one of the best plant sources of omega-3s, flax also contains phytoestrogenic compounds called lignans. A 2009 Canadian animal study found that not only did the flax lignan complex reduce the development and slow the progression of hypercholesterolemic atherosclerosis, but the suppression was actually due directly to its lignan content. The study conclusions further pointed out that "suppression of atherosclerosis is associated with lowering of serum lipids and antioxidant activity."
Chia seeds, too, are rich in ALA and now almost as ubiquitous as flax. Plus, chia is rich in phytochemicals associated with cardiovascular health. The seed of the ancient Salvia hispanica plant also has been shown to raise the blood levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in a study of postmenopausal women. EPA is one of the important fish-oil omega-3 compounds, and plant omegas such as ALA have often been considered inferior because so much is lost in the conversion to EPA in the body. But this study indicated much better absorption and conversion of the fatty acid.
Chia is experiencing a phenomenal increase in food and beverage formulations. Bonsall, Calif.-based Mamma Chia Corp launched an organic, high-antioxidant juice and chia beverage in summer 2009 that went national in just a few months. Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif., introduced Nutrition Plus chia clusters, made from whole and milled chia seed with oats and dried fruit, with strong success.
"Our newest, soon-to-be-published work shows bioavailability of chia seed ALA [peaks] in about 2.5 hours, nearly doubling the circulating ALA levels in the blood, which remains high for about 4 hours, returning to pre-consumption levels in 24 hours following a serving of chia seed clusters," says Nicholas Gillitt, director of Dole's Nutrition Research Laboratory in Kannapolis, N.C. "Both the whole seed and the milled seed provide fiber, protein and other nutrients, but our research has shown that, whereas the body cannot absorb the omega-3 fatty acids in the whole seed, it readily absorbs the omega-3s from milled chia seed. This happens over time, not in one day; our 10-week study showed that our subjects saw an increase in plasma ALA and EPA."
Dole Nutrition Plus's chia is kosher, packaged using 100-percent renewable energy, and cold-milled from GMO-free, GAP/GMP/HAACP-certified seeds.
It was only a few years ago scientists discovered that mushrooms are a surprising source of vitamin D — in fact, the only plant source known to have significant D (although, technically, mushrooms are not plants). And it was around this time research into vitamin D heated up to where it's one of the most studied nutraceutical compounds of the past few years.
Long thought of as the "bone health vitamin," vital for calcium metabolism and bone growth and development and osteoporosis prevention, the hormone-like vitamin D is showing promise of health benefits across a wide range of conditions, including breast and prostate cancers, autoimmune disease, diabetes, depression, chronic pain, osteoarthritis, muscle weakness, muscle wasting and birth defects, as well as several dozen more, according to the Vitamin D Council.
Recent studies indicate vitamin D contributes to cardiovascular health by facilitating proper uptake and distribution of calcium throughout the body. Calcium was shown to be critical to the function of the heart's electric system, allowing for the proper contraction of heart muscle cells. Research has shown that, in general, the level of circulating vitamin D in our body has a direct correlation with CVD risk, even though all the mechanisms involved are not fully determined.
The Dole Nutrition Institute is launching the first-ever plant-based source of vitamin D, with Dole Vitamin D Mushroom Powder. "The new product is a whole food versatile for a variety of uses, including vegetarian and vegan diets and numerous manufacturing and foodservice applications," says Paul Gross, a nutrition researcher at Dole. "Increasing awareness of the importance of vitamin D has led to a boom in vitamin D supplement sales — but consumers don't know that most of these supplements are derived from sheep fat, yeast or fish livers." Dole's mushroom powder is made from vitamin D-enhanced (via UV light) portobello mushrooms.
According to Gross, lower vitamin D raises the risk of peripheral artery disease — narrowing of the arteries in the legs and arms — as well as of heart attack and stroke. One study showed double the risk of heart failure among persons with low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D also affects hypertension, and could explain why Dutch researchers found exposure to sunlight just three times a week reduced both diastolic and systolic blood pressure by 5-8 percent.
The versatile and vegan powder has a moisture level of just 9 percent and has no residual flavor. It can be used in milligram quantities, with 150 percent of the daily vitamin D requirement per teaspoon. It can be readily used in food and flavor applications, such as sauces, rice, pasta, baked goods, casseroles, soups or even smoothies oatmeal and desserts.
While scientists have known for decades that the coenzyme known as Co-Q10 (or ubiquinone) is critical to heart health, use of the ingredient in functional foods and beverages is still lagging. But this sleeper of a nutraceutical is a key component in the electron transport chain, allowing cells to generate energy, plus its unique antioxidant action that prevents oxidation of LDL cholesterol involved in development of atherosclerosis. Because of this, Co-Q10 has a potential use as adjuvant therapy in heart diseases and to protect neurons against age-related degeneration.
Taking advantage of the lack of competition for CoQ 10-enhanced foods and beverages, Herbamed Ltd., Rehovot, Israel, provides energy/meal-replacement bars supplemented with ubiquinone, as well as the ingredient itself in a form that "uses liposomal-technology from the world of high-tech drug-delivery to improve the absorption of CoQ-10," according to company literature.
"Co-Q10 is a very lipophilic compound and poorly absorbed in the gut," says Anat Solomon, research and development manager for Herbamed. "For that reason Herbamed developed a unique proprietary technology named Ultrasome for enhancing the bioavailability of poor solubility drugs and nutraceuticals such as CoQ10."
Another interesting development in the heart-health ingredient arena from Herbamed is dried flakes of the whole orange — juice, albedo (the white part of the citrus peel) and the flavedo (the color part of the orange peel).
"Dried orange flakes are a unique product of Herbamed research and are based on whole valencia oranges, deriving the functional benefits of the juice, the albedo and the orange flavedo," says Solomon. "The functional benefits [to heart health] include a high content of total polyphenols and flavonoids, high total antioxidant capacity, and a good ratio between soluble and non-soluble nutritional fiber."
The company uses patented drying technology to preserve the contents of the active ingredients, such as flavonoids, dietary fiber and most of the vitamin content. "Several scientific studies and clinical trials were published on the active materials in orange and the linkage between them and cardiovascular diseases," says Solomon. She points to literature noting: compounds in the juice decrease LDLs and improve lipid transfer to HDLs, improve lipid metabolism and increase antioxidant capacity.
Orange albedo has a hypolipidemic and bifidogenic beneficial effects due to accelerated lipid excretion via inhibition of pancreatic lipase. Pectin, the major soluble fiber in orange, has cholesterol-lowering properties. Citrus flavonoids have a positive effect on serum cholesterol levels. And hydrophilic as well as lipophilic phytochemicals in orange juice have high bioavailability and antioxidant effects.
Phytosterols — plant compounds that are structurally similar to cholesterol — made a big splash more than a dozen years ago, showing up in dairy products, margarines and other products targeting healthier cardiovascular systems. By competing for cholesterol and thus blocking some of its uptake, they were heralded as the new darlings of healthy fats. New technology is making it easier for processors to use these plant sterols.
"Research shows that cholesterol levels in the blood can be substantially reduced and controlled through dietary modification and the intake of highly effective plant sterols," says Eric Fan Chiang, food scientist and global nutrition business director for DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, Kan. "In fact, more than 200 human intervention studies published in various journals have shown that with a daily phytosterol intake of 2g, [LDL] cholesterol levels could be reduced by an average of 9 percent."
The company provides PinVita, a novel plant sterol derived from a natural, sustainable, non-allergen and non-GMO pine source. Certified GRAS, it "provides an effective way to reduce cholesterol levels through dietary solutions." PinVita phytosterols are available as free and esterified forms especially adapted to delivery in foods, are easy to formulate, suitable for many applications and provide potential access to a supported cardiovascular health claim.
While researchers continue to discover and derive new and effective ingredients for making cardiovascular health a tasty proposition, it's also good to bear in mind that some of the old stand-by heart-smart ingredients -- like cranberries blueberries, pomegranates and other superfruits; nuts and whole grains; herbs and spices; and legumes -- are sources that never grow old.