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).
Two seeds for hearts
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."