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Sterol-Packed O.J. a Cholesterol Buster

But it won't work for those with high levels of the blood substance

FRIDAY, Feb. 27, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Now in your grocer's juice section: lowered cholesterol.

According to researchers, two glasses a day of orange juice enriched with natural plant sterols can reduce blood levels of LDL -- the bad cholesterol -- by an average of 12 percent over 10 weeks.

The specially fortified juice has been sold throughout the United States since last fall under the brand name Minute Maid Heart Wise. "It could be a meaningful consideration for patients who either have modest cholesterol elevations and who don't want to be on medication for the rest of their lives. Or, alternatively, [it could be used] as an adjunct to medications that have reached their maximum effectiveness," says Dr. Robert H. Eckel, chairman of the American Heart Association's Council of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism.

Scientists have long recognized the cholesterol-busting power of plant sterols, found naturally in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and legumes. Margarine spreads enriched with sterols have been available to health-conscious U.S. consumers for five years under the brand names "Benecol" and "Take Control."

In a study to be published in the March 8 issue of Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, researchers at the University of California, Davis Medical Center examined whether orange juice might also be effective in delivering daily doses of sterol goodness. The study received private funding from The Coca Cola Co. -- makers of Minute Maid Heart Wise -- as well as public funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The researchers had 72 individuals with mildly elevated levels of blood cholesterol drink two 8-ounce glasses of orange juice per day, first at breakfast and then again with dinner, over a period of 10 weeks. Half of the group drank the sterol-enriched juice, while the other half consumed unfortified juice.

Testing the participants' blood cholesterol levels throughout the study, "we got about an average 12 percent decrease in LDL," says lead researcher and pathologist Sridevi Devaraj. She believes "this is the first study that shows that a non-fat orange juice beverage, if you add plant sterols and have it with your regular meal -- you don't have to go on a diet -- reduces your LDL cholesterol."

The sterol-enriched juice appeared to have no significant effect on levels of either HDL (good) cholesterol or unhealthy blood fats known as triglycerides.

Consuming sterols via an enriched food product makes sense, Devaraj says, because the compounds are found in such small quantities naturally in foods. "In the average diet, even if you're a vegetarian, you can only get up to about 300 milligrams [of sterols] per meal," she says. In comparison, one 8-ounce glass of fortified orange juice supplies a full gram's worth of the compounds.

Commenting on the study, Eckel stresses the juice's effects remain modest, and shouldn't be considered a replacement for standard anti-cholesterol medications in individuals with high levels of cholesterol.

However, a couple glasses a day of Heart Wise might help those with mildly raised cholesterol avoid medication, he says.

"Let's take someone who's within 10 percent of reaching their goal without medication. If your LDL goal is 130, you're a middle-aged guy with hypertension but no heart disease, and your LDL cholesterol is 140, maybe a plant sterol-loaded orange juice would be all you need," Eckel says.

Orange juice contains other healthy nutrients such as vitamin C, folate and potassium. And Devaraj believes the new juice will appeal to cholesterol-conscious consumers turned off by the fat content in Benecol and Take Control.

But Eckel warns that drinking too much sugar- and carbohydrate-rich orange juice can also lead to weight gain. Juices such as Heart Wise "should [only] be included as part of an overall heart-healthy diet. This is not a product we're going to use in large volumes, encouraging extra calories," he says.

According to the American Heart Association, 105 million Americans have total blood cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL or above, increasing their risk for cardiovascular disease. Experts advise a combination of healthy diet, exercise and, if necessary, drug therapy, to keep cholesterol levels within healthy limits.

More information

To learn more about controlling cholesterol, visit the American Heart Association and the University of Michigan.

SOURCES: Robert H. Eckel, M.D., chairman, Council of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism, American Heart Association; Sridevi Devaraj, Ph.D, pathologist, University of California, Davis Medical Center; March 8, 2004, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology
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