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Oats Not A ‘Magic Bullet,’ Health Professionals Say

Bob Condor Chicago Tribune

The lowly oat now appears to be championed by the Food and Drug Administration as a superfood that can fight heart disease by lowering cholesterol, but a number of health professionals aren’t total fans.

“I teach a lot of adults about healthy eating,” said Gene Erb, clinical director of the Stedman Nutrition Center at Duke University. “They will lean to a ‘magic bullet’ mentality if you let them. People like to think one good food such as oatmeal will cancel out the bad stuff in their diets.”

For its part, the FDA qualified its first-ever ruling allowing a specific food to carry a health claim. The agency announced Jan. 23 that it will let manufacturers of certain oat products use advertising and package labeling touting the heart-healthy benefits of soluble fiber in whole oats (oatmeal, oat bran, oat flour). But the agency insisted any marketing include the message that such benefits from oats can be gained only if someone follows an overall diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Nutritionists fear the second part of the message will be lost.

“We don’t think it’s a good idea to pick out any one food for praise,” said at the consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest. “We’re afraid this move can lead us to another oat bran craze.”

Schardt was referring to the late 1980s, when many Americans were chowing down on assorted oat products based on highly publicized research. One such study showed a 19 percent reduction in cholesterol levels among subjects who ate a bowl of oatmeal and five oat bran muffins each day.

Critics argued the research didn’t factor in whether cholesterol levels dipped simply because the filling qualities of oats stopped people from consuming their typical amount of fatty foods.

Subsequent studies did reveal an independent effect of whole oats on cholesterol reduction (especially LDL, or the “bad” cholesterol). But Schardt said the decreased levels were closer to 5 percent and skewed toward helping people with above-average cholesterol counts of 240 or more.

“Oats are great food,” said Laura Farjood, a registered dietitian in Naperville, Ill., “but the biggest problem is you need three to four servings every day to make a difference.”

For example, Farjood said, a daily bowl of oatmeal is not enough, unless you regularly eat 1-1/2 cups of it. If Cheerios were your superfood variation of choice, three bowls would be necessary to get the 3 grams of beta-glucan soluble fiber the FDA has associated with reduced cholesterol.

Nutritionists contend heart-healthy fiber is available in other whole foods, especially kidney and garbanzo beans, apples, oranges and broccoli.

Officials at Chicago-based Quaker Oats, of course, are thrilled with the new proclamation, especially since the company spent millions in research, legal and marketing dollars to persuade the FDA to consider its unprecedented plug.

Quaker Oats originally petitioned the agency in March 1995 under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which has standardized dietary information available on all packaged foods since it took effect in 1993.

“It’s no accident oats are the first food allowed to have specific health claims,” said Ron Bottrell, a Quaker Oats spokesman. “The research spans three decades and 37 studies, about two-thirds of which we funded. I don’t think there is another food with this type of research behind it.”

True enough, said Judith Foulke of the FDA. And, she said, there is no other food currently up for such a high-powered endorsement.

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