Another magic bullet is headed for your supermarket.
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved an additional label claim for foods that lower your cholesterol. Recently the FDA gave the go-ahead to oat products because so many studies have shown that if you eat your Cheerios or oatmeal regularly, as part of an overall healthy diet (low in fat, high in fiber, you know the drill), the soluble fiber they contain can play a part in further lowering your cholesterol.
Now the FDA has reviewed the scientific evidence and concluded that psyllium, a type of ground seed husk, is even more powerful at lowering cholesterol. So a food containing psyllium can now state on its label: "Eating soluble fiber from foods such as psyllium as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease."
By now you may be wondering what it is you're eating that contains psyllium, or even how to pronounce it. (The p is silent. Say "silly-yum." ) At the moment, you'll find it in two places -- in Metamucil, where it has been used as a laxative for ages, and in Kellogg's All Bran, Bran Buds. But more psyllium-containing foods are coming, and therein lies the rub.
The good news is that psyllium really is a concentrated soluble-fiber source. One tablespoon of psyllium is equal to about 14 tablespoons of oat bran.
But here's the bad news. Kellogg's points out: "Eating three to four servings of psyllium per day within this healthy lifestyle can be an added -- but important -- way to lower cholesterol."
Kellogg's is betting you won't eat Bran Buds four times a day (nor should you), so it has big plans for you. Kellogg's is going to offer you psyllium-laced cookies and pastries for snacks. You'd be better off choosing an orange, which contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, as well as a day's worth of vitamin C and one-fourth of your folic acid, also important for lowering heart disease risks.
And that's the magic bullet problem. Adding a little psyllium to FTC your diet could help lower your cholesterol. But using too much, especially if it replaces other healthy fruits and vegetables, could shortchange you when it comes to other vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals known to be important for preventing heart disease, cancer and stroke.
In comments to the FDA, the American Dietetic Association points out that food, not dietary supplements or food components added to food products, is the best way to increase fiber intake for most people.
The ADA raised other issues:
Eating too much psyllium over a long period of time might increase colon cancer risks. This has not been studied.
Some people (although a very small number) are allergic to psyllium, so labels should carry a warning on the front.
The biggest problem is fluid. When you take Metamucil, you mix it with fluid. When you eat Bran Buds, you pour on the milk. But what if you eat a psyllium-studded cereal bar for breakfast? You need to drink a lot of fluid to process all that dry psyllium. This is a special worry for children who could easily become impacted from high consumption. Consequently, the labels will suggest you drink six to eight glasses of fluid daily. Heed that warning.
If your cholesterol is high and you have a family history of heart disease, you may want to add a little psyllium to your diet. But don't go overboard. Instead, make it part of a healthy, low-saturated-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables (especially the deep orange and dark green ones), and whole- grain breads and cereals. Add a couple of servings of low-fat dairy foods and get some regular exercise. And drink plenty of fluids.
Registered Dietitian Colleen Pierre is the nutrition consultant for Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorts & Associates in Baltimore.
Pub Date: 4/14/98