Snack Your Way to Better Cholesterol

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Granola Bars and BananasOne of the biggest things to hit the food industry in the past decade is the snack bar. It seems like everywhere you turn, a new bar is on the market. Some are simply meant to help tide you over between meals, while the majority promises some kind of health benefit.

There are bars that are high in fiber, high in protein, sugar-free and/or low carb. Some are designed for weight lifters, while others are made especially for women. Some are packed with probiotics and others are filled with antioxidants. Still others are billed as good for your heart, safe for diabetics, or even an alternative to gastric bypass surgery!

And then there are the ingredients: crispy rice, nuts, fruit, chocolate or no chocolate, and gluten-free. But regardless of whom they are designed for, what they contain, or what ailment they aim to treat, snack bars are clearly here to stay. The key is separating the nutrition builders from the snack food.

To this end, Brazilian researchers set out to create the perfect snack bar for people with high cholesterol.[1] And, boy, did they have their work cut out for them.

Making the Bar

For the Brazilian researchers, the goal was to make a snack bar to help lower cholesterol levels. This meant that the bar needed to contain foods and/or substances that didn’t raise levels (obviously), as well as things that are known to help lower cholesterol. And that meant soy needed to play a large role.

Studies have shown that soy helps improve fat metabolism,[2] as well as lower total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides, while also increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.[3] Based on this, researchers choose to use a combination of soy crisps, soy protein isolate, textured soy protein and toasted, unsalted soy as the main ingredients for the bar.

To round out the taste and texture, they then added glucose syrup, demerara sugar, maltodextrin, palm oil, lecithin, glycerine, coloring and dried banana, much of which they found at a local market.

They then had to make sure the bar had an acceptable color, texture and “chewiness.” From a safety standpoint, they had to ensure the bar passed microbiological analysis and was free of yeast, mold and bacteria. Also, it had to be shelf stable for at least six months. And, of course, it had to taste good. Pretty tall order!

To test things like color, texture, appearance and taste, researchers recruited 50 people who were staff, students or faculty at the Universidade Estadual de Londrina in Brazil to taste and comment on the bars. They had to comment on several factors:

  • Rank overall opinion of the bar from 1 to 9, with 1 being dislike extremely and 9 being like extremely.
  • Would you purchase?
  • Would you purchase if you knew the bar could help lower your risk of cardiovascular disease?

They learned that the bars earned a 70 percent acceptability score, meaning that most people scored the bar at 7 or higher. Of those that liked the bar, 54 percent listed the taste as what they liked the most. Of those that didn’t like the bar, 36 percent said it was the texture they didn’t care for, while 25 percent said it was the appearance that turned them off.

And, when all was said and done, 83 percent said they would buy the bar. And when you threw in the potential health benefits, a whopping 94 percent said they would pick up a bar to help improve their health.

Given the big promise, researchers then had to ensure the bar could make good. It contained 245 calories and was 14 percent carbohydrate, 40 percent fiber, 9 percent fat and 34 percent protein. This qualified it to be characterized as high protein/high fiber. To be sure they could live up to the heart health/cholesterol claims, researchers had to make sure it contained enough soy isoflavones, the active heart-health nutrient found in soy. Each bar contained 100 mg/100 grams.

They were now ready to test the bar’s effectiveness in lowering cholesterol.

Raising the Bar

Researchers gave the bars to 22 patients with high cholesterol. Each participant ate three bars a day (between meals) for 45 days. All participants had their weight, height, waist circumference and BMI calculated before and after the study period. They also had blood drawn before and after the study period to test their total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, triglyceride and glucose levels.

They found that after the 45 days, weight, waist circumference and BMI all remained the same, even though the participants were consuming more than 700 additional calories a day. Additionally, there was no significant difference in their glucose levels. Their total cholesterol and LDL levels also remained unchanged. However, their triglyceride levels (fat in the blood) dropped an incredible 20 percent, and their HDL cholesterol increased by 8 percent.

These are pretty amazing results, especially when you consider that they were achieved without using a low-fat diet or drugs. In fact, the change in triglycerides was comparable to what you’d see with cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. One study found that statins lower triglycerides by 13 percent,[4] which is clearly less than that achieved with the bars.

On the HDL front, other research has found that a mere 1 percent decrease in HDL can increase your heart disease risk by three percent.[5] Therefore, an 8 percent increase means substantial protection for your heart.

Researchers concluded, “The development of functional foods may expand the available options for controlling dyslipidaemia [high cholesterol] and for providing health benefits.”

They did acknowledge that, for their particular bar, they needed to work on the texture and appearance. They postulated that adding oligofructose and/or inulin (both of which are soluble fibers) could help with this issue without compromising the health status of the bar.

Get on the Bar Bandwagon

There is something to be said for the use of a healthy bar as a snack or even meal replacement. The key word is healthy.” When choosing a bar, make sure it is high in protein and/or fiber and low in sugar, ideally in the single digits per bar (not per serving … per bar).

And, whenever possible, look for ingredients you recognize and can pronounce. If you couldn’t buy the ingredient list in your average grocery store or market, you may want to keep looking.

[1] Lobato, LP et al. Snack bars with high soy protein and isoflavone content for use in diets to control dyslipidaemia. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2011 July 6. [Epub ahead of print.]

[2] Anderson, JW. Diet first, then medication for hypercholesterolemia (editorial). JAMA. 2003;290:531-3.

[3] Reynolds, K et al. A meta-analysis of the effect of soy protein supplementation on serum lipids. Am J Cardiol. 2006;98(5):633-40.

[4] LaRosa, JC et al. Effect of statins on risk of coronary disease: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. JAMA. 1999;282(24):2340-6.

[5] Anderson, JW and Konz, EC. Obesity and disease management: effects of weight loss on comorbid conditions. Obes Res. 2001;9(4):326-34.

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