May 5, 2000 -- Using a new type of margarine lowers cholesterol in healthy children and gives them a head start on avoiding the life-long process of developing heart disease, according to a study from Finland that appears in the April issue of The Journal of Pediatrics.
In addition, the investigators find that this new spread, called plant stanol ester margarine but sold as Benecol, has no bad side effects in the short run for healthy children who already consume a low-saturated-fat, low-cholesterol diet.
The margarine is derived from pine tree wood pulp and works by blocking the absorption of cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract.
"Finland is a country with a high death rate from [heart] disease," Anne Tammi, MD, tells WebMD. "Most children in our country have [cholesterol levels] much higher than recommended. We wanted to study whether plant stanol margarine would further decrease ? cholesterol in healthy children who had been on a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol for years." Tammi is a researcher at the University of Turku in Finland and one of the study's investigators.
"There is a consensus today that [heart] disease has it roots in very early childhood," Alpo Vuorio, MD, tells Web MD. "The take-home message here is that stanol ester spread offers an effective and safe way to lower [overall] cholesterol and LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) without side effects." Vuorio, a University of Helsinki researcher, led an earlier study on the new margarine.
The 72 children who completed this latest study also are participants in another trial in Finland that is looking at whether children will avoid developing heart disease if they watch their diet from birth. In the study, each day for three months they replaced their regular margarines with 20 grams of the stanol ester spread. To put that in perspective, there are eight grams of stanol ester in one and a half teaspoons.
Using the stanol ester margarine decreased the total cholesterol over 5% and decreased "bad" cholesterol by over 7%. Although the HDL did not change, the effect was still positive, because ratio to total cholesterol count increased.
Should parents include stanol ester margarine in the diet of a healthy child?
"[For now], we are encouraging parents to supply their children with a diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol," Tammi says. "This provides a cholesterol reduction of about 5% to 10% if constantly followed."
Linda Van Horn, PhD, a preventive medicine expert at Northwestern University who was not involved in the study, agrees.
"Try diet first," she tells WebMD. "That means less than 30% fat and less than 10% saturated fat. If the child is not adhering to a low-fat diet, then you might add plant stanol ester margarine with the supervision of a health professional. Parents shouldn't think that you can give a child a stanol ester and all the cholesterol problems will melt away."
Alice Lichtenstein, PhD, tells WebMD that "a number of studies have shown that there should be no fat restriction below the age of two, but if there is a family history of heart disease and high cholesterol, each child should be evaluated individually. There are a number of options, including reducing the saturated fat intake to no more than 7%, and using stanol ester margarine." Lichtenstein is a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston and also was not involved in the study.
Tammi notes that in Finland, like in the U.S., plant stanol ester margarine is expensive. It's manufactured and marketed by McNeil Consumer Healthcare. The products for this study were supplied by the Raisio Group, which manufactures and supplies plant stanol ester for McNeil.
- Healthy children who consume a special type of margarine, available commercially as Benecol, can lower their cholesterol and get a head start on heart health, a new study shows.
- This plant stanol ester margarine works by blocking the absorption of cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract and has no short-term adverse effects in children.
- Parents should encourage children over age 2 to eat a healthy diet, with only 30% of calories from any fat and 10% from saturated fats.