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Heart-healthy muffin tops? Disease-fighting cheese? An increasing amount of foods being stocked on your grocer's shelves are making big claims about big health benefits. Do these foods really follow through on their promises or are they lying through their labels? With the emerging trend in "functional foods", health-conscious consumers should know the facts before they buy.

Functional foods are enriched with nutrients that may not be inherent to a given food and may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. Demand for these fortified or enhanced foods is high as consumer interest in health and wellness has increased in recent years, particularly among affluent baby boomers. Consumers are now looking for foods that are not only convenient, but have health-promoting advantages, like added calcium or antioxidants.

Scientists have revolutionized the health industry by figuring out a way to add cholesterol-lowering plant sterols to many of our favorite foods without changing the taste, texture or aroma. Plant sterols, also called phytosterols, are found in all plants, including vegetables, seeds and nuts. Plant sterols are structurally similar to cholesterol molecules, and they inhibit the absorption of cholesterol, significantly lowering the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood. Even though all plants contain plant sterols, the typical diet does not contain enough of this cholesterol buster to have a significant impact naturally.

In clinical studies plant sterols have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels by eight to 15 percent. Its because of results like these that products containing CoroWise® cholesterol reducers can display a heart health claim from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Not many products can say the same. Since 1993, when the FDA started regulating health food claims, only 12 claims have been FDA-approved. These FDA claims are backed by a mountain of scientific evidence.

The FDA claim printed on labels on foods containing plant sterolsreads like this:

Foods or beverages containing at least 0.4 g plant sterols, when consumed twice a day with meals for a total intake of 0.8 g/day as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

A new ingredient working its functional food magic is Barlív™ barley betafiber, which is a soluble fiber derived from whole grain barley and has been clinically shown to reduce cholesterol when consumed as part of a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet. It will soon be available in everything from beverages to snacks and cereals.

Barlív™ barley betafiber meets the requirements for an FDA health claim, getting the oficial "thumbs up" as an authorized source of soluble fiber. The product is still in its development, but future foods containing Barlív™ barley betafiber can tout its heart-healthy properties with the following FDA healthclaim:

Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 3 grams of beta-glucan soluble fiber from barley betafiber may reduce the risk of heart disease.

As the functional food market grows, many products that spring up on store shelves could make a serious impact on some of today's most pressing health concerns, including heart health, digestive health, diabetes and obesity. And many functional foods generally deliver on their promises. But, as with any food you select - especially prepackaged foods - it's always best to keep yourself educated and to look for the brands you know and trust.

Joseph M. Keenan, M.D.
Dr. Joseph Keenan is retired Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Minnesota. he holds a joint professorship in the University of Minnesota school of Food science and Nutrition. his research interest is preventive cardiology with a special interest in the use of nutrition and nutritional supplements in the reduction of cardiovascular disease risk. dr. Keenan has been awarded over $3 million in research grants and has published more than 50 scientific articles dealing with his research. he has over 150 papers and presided national and international scientific meetings. dr. Keenan is considered one of the leading national experts in the field of nutritional supplement research and cardiovascular disease.

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