Heart Health Becoming a Major Concern for Aging Baby Boomers

Dec. 3, 2013
Food and beverage manufacturers look to grains and soy to help boost formulations.

The Baby Boom generation has made great strides and had great impact across the globe. The group of post-World War II children, generally identified as being born from 1946 to 1964, has reached or is nearing retirement today and is focusing on being healthier, especially in the areas of the heart. The boomers are demanding a healthier way of life.

Lowering cholesterol is one major way of increasing heart health. Medicines are an effective way to help, and the leading heart associations recently released new guidelines that are reshaping the cholesterol-lowering statin medicines. But usually the first recommendation out of a doctor's mouth is, "Can you change your diet?"

The American Heart Association very clearly states the importance of heart health in a letter on its website:

"Dear America,

"More than half of you will likely suffer a cardiac event. One in every three of you will die of cardiovascular disease. We don't share these statistics to alarm you. We share them to arm you. We want you to have the knowledge you need to avoid becoming a statistic."

"People in general seem to be more focused on their health, and definitely one of the keys is heart health," says Rajen Mehta, senior director-specialty ingredients in the Eugene, Ore., office of Grain Millers Inc. And he notes that besides advances in the medical field, consumers can do much to help themselves by eating better.

Changing your diet may not be the easiest or most fun way to change your life, but it can be the simplest. "I personally eat a bowl of oatmeal every day," he says. He should; oats are perhaps Grain Millers' highest-volume ingredient. Other grains include wheat, barley and rye, which are milled into flours, flakes, brans and fibers.

Grains are getting a great amount of attention, as a product by themselves and in the formulation of new aids to food production.

"Indirect evidence is that the steel cut oatmeal, for example, are becoming a lot more prevalent in the channels of consumption. Many of the health-oriented grocery stores and restaurants seem to have more and more steel cut oatmeals on their list of products or on the menu," Mehta said.

Oats are rich in beta-glucan which helps lower cholesterol. Along with oats, barley is another grain with beta-glucan benefits. Just as many are going back to the traditional breakfast of oatmeal in the morning, Grain Millers is looking even farther back to what it calls "ancient grains."

"We are also looking at the ancient grains, such as chia. Chia has been associated with anti-inflammatory properties. We offer a whole line of ancient grains and we are looking at anything you can do to reduce that risk of heart disease."

Convincing numbers come not only from the medical community but from the ranks of baby boomers, themselves.

"I pulled some statistics that show more than half of the boomers show concern about heart disease," says Pam Stauffer, corn milling global marketing and communications manager at Cargill Inc., Wayzata, Minn. "The numbers are higher than the total was in 2012 when it was up at about 47 percent, so it appears the overall concern about heart disease is increasing.

"Those personally affected by heart disease have gone up as well, from 7 to 10 percent," she adds. "Another statistic that has gone up is that 'heart healthy' is extremely or very important on the label of a food or beverage product, and that has gone up from 43 to 46 percent from 2010 to 2012. It does appear boomers are a more interested party in heart health."

Focusing on cholesterol

There are many ways for food producers to accomplish the goals of creating products that will keep baby boomers' tickers pumping like a precision tool.

"Fruits, nuts and vegetables should be part of the mix regardless of whether you are striving to eat in a way that reduces risk of heart disease, cancer, or that helps maintain ideal weight," says Mark Messina, executive director of the Soy Nutrition Institute. "These foods are very nutrient dense and have much to offer.

"Omega-3 fatty acids are generally viewed as being protective against coronary heart disease although the evidence is not entirely consistent," he continues. "Since many Americans don't regularly consume fish, omega-3 fatty acid intake is often less than ideal. Soybean oil provides nearly half of the U.S. omega-3 fatty acid intake and a newly developed soybean oil may make it even easier to meet omega-3 fatty acid needs."

Indeed, there is a new edible oil on the horizon that is rich in stearidonic acid (SDA), an omega-3 fatty acid. "The advantage of this new increased omega-3 oil is that the SDA is much more efficiently converted to the long chain omega-3 fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) than alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, the omega-3 fatty acid in soybeans and conventional soybean oil) and it contains much more SDA than conventional oil contains ALA. EPA is thought to reduce risk of coronary heart disease," he adds.

Of course, a heart-healthy diet requires more than omega-3 oils.

One approach is the Portfolio Diet advocated by David Jenkins and colleagues at the University of Toronto. The regimen emphasizes fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, soy foods, tofu and nuts, especially almonds. It is a mostly vegetarian, near-vegan diet. It suggests avoiding margarine and butter (except plant sterol-enriched margarine), meats, cow's milk and other dairy products (except yogurt). It suggests replacing most grains with barley and oats. Among vegetables, only okra and eggplant are encouraged. Try to add beans, psyllium and oat bran because they lower bad cholesterol.

"The Portfolio Diet nicely illustrates that dietary change alone can dramatically lower cholesterol levels (as much as 30 percent) -- although it may be a diet that only the very motivated can follow for the long term," Messina says. "On the other hand, even partially following this type of diet will still result in a reduction in cholesterol and presumably, a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

"Phytosterols, which markedly lower cholesterol, are part of the Portfolio Diet. Although the standard dose of phytosterols for the treatment of high cholesterol is 2g per day, an amount possible to consume only through supplements or enriched foods such as margarine, recent data indicate that phytosterol intake within the dietary range (150-350mg) is associated with lower cholesterol levels and lower risk of heart attack in men. Foods high in phytosterols include soybeans, soy oil, nuts."

And, believe it or not, margarine, corn chips and orange juice – at least some brands.

Cargill manufactures CoroWise plant sterols, which have found their way into several products as a cholesterol-lowering agent. "They have an FDA reduction of heart disease health claim and the method of doing that is by reducing LDL cholesterol," says Stauffer. "You can position it as a cholesterol-reducing product or as a heart-healthy kind of product. This broadens the scope of people who might be interested in buying the product, including boomers. The opportunity is to identify the applications that are going to best meet their lifestyle and taste preferences."

While many consumers do understand ingredients such as plant sterols, the food industry needs to do more education. "We do some targeted campaigns to reach consumers on the benefits. [We want] people to look for that CoroWise logo and trust that brand of plant sterols so they will go out and seek products that contain that ingredient specifically.

"We also do health care professional outreach, so that when they are counseling patients on opportunities to manage heart health and specifically to reduce cholesterol they also think of CoroWise and say, 'Oh it's in Minute Maid Heart Wise orange juice' or 'Its in Corazona's oatmeal squares.' We hope they would get down to recommending very specific products to meet the needs of their patients."

Soy foods

Getting back to the Portfolio Diet, one of its key ingredients is a reliance on soy foods as the major source of protein. Soy foods come in a wide variety of forms from traditional to modern so there are lots of options for even those consuming a fairly traditional Western diet.

"Soy foods not only provide high quality protein but were awarded a health claim for coronary heart disease in 1999 by the FDA based on the cholesterol-lowering effects of soy protein," Messina continues. "However, elevated cholesterol is just one risk factor for coronary heart disease and it is by no means the most important. Elevated blood pressure is major risk factor, and recent evidence indicates soy foods have a modest hypotensive effect.

"Interestingly, coronary heart disease mortality among women in Japan is one of the lowest in developed countries, much lower than in the U.S. And yet, traditional coronary heart disease risk factors – lipids (cholesterol), blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and early menopause – don't explain the difference between these two countries.

"It could be that soy foods, which are widely consumed in Japan, are a contributing factor since a recent study found that isoflavone-rich soy protein markedly reduced carotid intima media thickness (CIMT) in young postmenopausal women. CIMT refers to the thickness of the carotid artery (the arteries that supply the neck and brain with blood); the thicker the artery the more likely is a stroke or coronary event. This reduction in thickness is almost certainly due to the isoflavones in soybeans since isoflavones have been shown to improve endothelial function. The endothelial cells are the thin layer of cells that line the blood vessels. When the health of these cells is impaired coronary heart disease risk is increased."

Just as the baby boomers age and look for help in their diets, there appears to be innovation coming from food processors and their ingredient suppliers.

"That's the key," Mehta said, "you can have indulgent foods by controlling some ingredients and by sourcing the right grains and right ingredients, so you can have your cake and eat it, too."

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