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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.

Products containing omega-3s

On the shelves: Odwalla Soymilk; Omega Farms Omega-3-fortified dairy products (including milk, cheese, and yogurt); omega-3-fortified eggs; and many other enhanced foods, from bread to mayonnaise.

Claims: Most of these products haven't gotten the FDA stamp of approval, so manufacturers need to tread more carefully. You're likely to see vague promises like "helps maintain a healthy heart" or "promotes healthy circulation."

Evidence: Most or all of the omega-3s in these enhanced products is in the plant form (called ALA), which is healthy — but doesn't have any proven heart benefits. To get those benefits, you need the type of omega-3s that are found in fatty fish (EPA/DHA). True, a few fortified products do contain EPA/DHA, but they don't supply enough to make much difference.

Shopping advice: Go fishing. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone eat at least two servings of fish (particularly a fatty type like salmon or lake trout) weekly. A 3-ounce serving of salmon averages 1,450 mg of EPA/DHA, compared to only 75 mg in an 8-ounce serving of Omega Farms Milk.

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