Nutrition Action Healthletter
December 1999 — U.S. Edition

Second Helpings
Cholesterol-Lowering Margarine

[Picture]The new cholesterol-lowering margarines that we wrote about earlier this year (April 1999, cover story) may rob the body of carotenoids, which protect against cancer, heart disease, and eye problems.

   The margarines — Benecol and Take Control — are among the hottest new “functional foods.” They’re fortified with phytosterols, which are plant compounds that can lower high blood cholesterol levels by ten percent or more.

   But new research from Finland suggests that cholesterol isn’t the only thing they lower. In a six-week study of 23 women, a Benecol-like margarine lowered blood levels of beta-carotene by 30 percent.1 And in a year-long study of 102 men and women, Benecol lowered beta-carotene by 25 percent.2 The studies didn’t test blood levels of lutein and lycopene, two other important carotenoids.

   Carotenoids may lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in the elderly. If the new studies are borne out by future research on other carotenoids, the new margarines may cut into the potential benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. — David Schardt

1 Metabolism 48: 575, 1999.
2 Atherosclerosis 145: 279, 1999.


[Picture]In April 1998 (p. 8) we reported that taking echinacea regularly doesn’t seem to protect people from getting colds, and that it isn’t clear which form of echinacea can shorten a cold’s duration or relieve its symptoms. New research confirms that the herb doesn’t prevent colds.

   In the first good U.S. study, people who took the EchinaGuard brand every day got no fewer colds than people who took a lookalike (but echinacea-free) placebo. The study, which hasn’t yet been published, was sponsored by EchinaGuard’s U.S. distributor, Nature’s Way.

   But echinacea’s ability to shorten the length of colds or ease their symptoms is still up in the air.

   German scientists have found that an echinacea extract was no better than a placebo at preventing — or shortening the duration of — colds and similar infections.1

   But in a Swedish study of 246 volunteers, those who started taking either of two different dosages of the EchinaForce brand three times a day at the first sniffle had significantly milder cold symptoms than those who took a third echinacea preparation or a placebo.2DS

1 Amer. J. Med. 106: 138, 1999.
2 Phytomedicine 6: 1, 1999.

Functional Foods Blues


  • Hain has reportedly dropped its “Kitchen Prescription” canned soups, which were fortified with the herbs St John’s wort or echinacea. Hain claimed that the soups were dietary supplements, which would have meant looser government regulation over their ingredients and labels. The Food and Drug Administration challenged the claim.
  • Kellogg has delayed the introduction of its ambitious new Ensemble line of 21 foods that contain the soluble fiber psyllium, which lowers blood cholesterol. According to industry insiders, test-market sales were disappointing.


Hydroxycitrate (HCA) is one of the most common ingredients in weight-loss dietary supplements, even though the best study of HCA found that it worked no better than a placebo (July/August 1999, p.9).

   Now there’s more bad news for HCA. Researchers at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center could find no evidence in young sedentary men that HCA keeps the body from making fat, as its proponents say it does.1

   And a California court has told CitriMax — one of the two major brands of HCA — that it can’t claim (in that state) that HCA causes weight loss unless it comes up with credible evidence. Too bad the Federal Trade Commission doesn’t protect the rest of us from misleading HCA claims, by Citri-Max and a host of other companies. — DS

1 Int. J. Obes. Rel. Met. Dis. 23: 867, 1999.

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