It's Official: Nuts Are Good for Your Heart

FDA allows labels to tout nuts' role in a heart-healthy diet

From the WebMD Archives

July 17, 2003 -- Nut lovers now have even more reason to come out of their shells. Labels on nut products will now be allowed to advertise that a handful a day of most nuts may be enough to lower the risk of heart disease.

This week the FDA approved the first qualified health claim for almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, and peanuts for use in advertising and package labels. Packages of nut products that meet the FDA's requirements will now be able to carry the following claim:

"Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."

An ounce and a half serving of nuts is about a third of a cup or a small handful.

Only nut-based food products, such as plain nuts and some nut butters, that meet the FDA's fat and nutrition requirements will be able to carry the label, not items such as chocolate-covered nuts or ice creams with added nuts.

In approving the qualified health claim, the FDA says there is good scientific evidence to support the claim that eating nuts reduces the risk of heart disease, but the evidence is not entirely conclusive. It's part of a new FDA program that ranks scientific evidence behind health claims of food products.

"This new initiative will better protect consumers from making uninformed or misinformed choices about their diet and nutrition, but giving consumers better information about the health consequences of these choices," says FDA commissioner, Mark B. McClellan, MD, PhD, in a news release.

McClellan says the FDA review process for making qualified claims will reward companies that make healthier products and help distinguish them from those who make false or misleading health claims.

How Nutty Should You Be?

Lowering Heart Disease Risk in a Nutshell

Although nuts aren't exactly low in calories or fat, nuts contain high levels of unsaturated fats that are known to lower "bad" LDL cholesterol levels in the blood and reduce the risk of heart disease.

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"Our epidemiological studies have shown eating about one ounce of nuts every day will reduce the risk of heart disease in the long run by 30%," says Frank Hu, MD, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Almost all types of nuts have high amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and when you substitute this kind of good fat for carbohydrates and saturated fat, your LDL will go down."

"When you put these pieces together, I think the evidence is very consistent and very strong, but it doesn't meet the criteria for statins [cholesterol-lowering drugs]," says Hu.

In fact, Hu says it's nearly impossible for foods like nuts to meet the FDA's requirements for unqualified health claims because it's difficult to conduct trials comparing foods to placebo, and it takes many years for foods to produce beneficial health effects.

Although the unsaturated, "good" fats found in nuts probably play the most important role in nuts' cholesterol-lowering effects, researchers say nuts also contain several other ingredients that may also reduce the risk of heart disease, such as fiber, arginine (an amino acid), magnesium, antioxidants like vitamin E and selenium, and phytochemicals.

"There's not one particular component in nuts that you can point to and say, 'This is it,'" says Maureen Ternus, MS, RD, nutrition coordinator for the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation. "The FDA has stated that the cholesterol-lowering effect probably comes from the unsaturated fats. But you never know, down the road more research may find, for example, that the phytochemicals have the strongest impact."

Working Nuts Into a Heart Healthy Diet

Experts say the key to reaping the heart-healthy benefits of nuts is to find ways to incorporate nuts into a low-fat diet by substituting nuts for other, often less nutritious food items instead of just adding additional calories. For example:

  • Sprinkle nuts on a salad or soup instead of croutons or cheese.
  • Have a handful of nuts as a snack rather than pretzels or chips.
  • Top yogurt or cereal with chopped nuts rather than granola.

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To keep portion sizes and costs under control, Ternus recommends buying nuts in bulk and then putting one-third cup of the nuts in snack sized plastic bags to use throughout the day.

"Some people may look at it and think 'this is it?' But in that small amount, you're not only getting the health benefits for reducing heart disease, but you're getting all these other nutrients as well. Nuts are very nutrient dense," says Temus.

The size of a one and a half ounce serving of nuts also varies depending on the type of nut. That's about 70 shelled pistachios, 42 peanuts, 36 almonds, 30 pecan halves or hazelnuts, and 21 walnut halves.

Although macadamia and cashew nuts contain many of the same heart-healthy unsaturated fats and nutrients as other nuts, they did not meet the FDA's requirements for the qualified health claim because they have a slightly higher overall fat content.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Medical News Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on July 17, 2003

Sources

SOURCES: News release, FDA. Frank Hu, MD, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Maureen Ternus, MS, RD, nutrition coordinator for the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation. American Heart Association.

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