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The New Miracle Foods

For Your Tummy continued...

Nonetheless, there's definite promise. Several studies have shown that Dannon's Activia speeds intestinal transit time — the hours it takes food to pass through your digestive system — which may help if you have a problem with constipation.

Companies also claim that probiotics boost immunity. In one study, people who ate DanActive had shorter-lasting colds. Other research, in Sweden, showed that a certain strain of bacteria cut the number of sick days that employees took. But that study, like most others with probiotics, was conducted with supplements, not with commercially available foods, which don't contain enough of the strain in question.

There is also strong evidence supporting claims that three strains of probiotics — Bifidobacterium lactis, Saccharomyces boulardii, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG — relieve or prevent diarrhea. But again, you won't find enough of these microbes in any supermarket foods; you'd need to buy probiotic supplements such as Florastor (which contains Saccharomyces boulardii ) or Culturelle (Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG) in a health food store.

Shopping advice: If your goal is to just get some potentially beneficial bacteria into your diet, use products that contain Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli. But you can hedge your bets still further by choosing items that would be good for you even if they didn't tout probiotics. Kashi's Vive Probiotic cereal is high in fiber. The yogurt, smoothies, and kefir drinks from Dannon, Stonyfield Farm, and Lifeway all deliver calcium and protein. Stonyfield and Lifeway also include inulin, a naturally occurring fiber that boosts your body's absorption of calcium, report several studies.

Watch out for: Promises of weight loss, improved liver function, healthy skin, or cancer-fighting properties — there's no substantial research to back up these claims.

For Your Heart

First there was oat bran, added to everything from cereal to potato chips. Now there are tons of enhanced foods promising to promote cardiovascular health (even such unlikely candidates as eggs and mayonnaise). With thousands of baby boomers turning 50 every day, food companies are seeing, well, a boom market here.

Products containing plant sterols or stanols

On the shelves: These natural plant substances are added to Benecol and Take Control spreads; Minute Maid Premium Heartwise Orange Juice; Nature Valley Healthy Heart Chewy Granola bars; Corazonas tortilla chips; Right Direction cookies (which also contain four grams of heart-healthy soluble fiber).

Claims: Foods that contain plant sterols (and follow government guidelines for sodium, fat, and other ingredients) can boast an FDA-approved claim, such as "lowers cholesterol" or "may reduce the risk of heart disease."

Evidence: Extensive research shows that both plant sterols and stanols, as well as soluble fiber (such as oat bran), can lower elevated LDL cholesterol by about 10 percent.

Shopping advice: Choose products that are also low in saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Keep in mind that these foods, which can be pricier than their non-enhanced counterparts, help only if you already have high cholesterol. Also, plant sterols must be eaten twice a day and at separate meals — you can't just slather your morning toast with Benecol and be done with it if you want to reap the heart benefit.

Watch out for: Calories! One chocolate chip cookie fortified with plant sterols has the same 150 or so calories as an ordinary chocolate chip cookie. It makes sense to use these products only if they are substitutes for less healthy versions.

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