• U.S.

It Sure Ain’t Butter

3 minute read
Christine Gorman

I don’t ask a lot from food. It should taste good and be reasonably good for me. But more and more these days we’re encouraged to view the grocery store as a medicine chest. There are tofu and yams for hot flashes. Ginseng tea for energy. Stewed tomatoes to prevent prostate cancer. So when I heard about Benecol and Take Control, the new margarines that are supposed to lower cholesterol levels in the blood, I didn’t exactly smack my lips in anticipation. Still, I figured, given how much heart disease there is in the U.S., they deserved a look.

Both spreads come with pretty good scientific credentials. The key ingredient in Benecol, which was approved last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, comes from a compound that occurs naturally in pine trees. Take Control, which got the green light in April, uses an extract made from soybean oil. Randomized, controlled trials show that folks with mildly elevated cholesterol levels (between 200 mg/dl and 240 mg/dl) who ate roughly two tablespoons of Benecol a day decreased their level of LDL, the “bad cholesterol,” about 14%. The manufacturers of Take Control, on the other hand, designed their product so that it would lower LDL levels 10%. Neither spread affects the level of HDL, or “good cholesterol.” Which product would work better for you, if it works at all, depends a lot on your own biochemistry.

Both Benecol and Take Control make it harder for the intestines to absorb cholesterol. (About half of the cholesterol in the gut comes from your diet; the other half gets produced by your body.) There is evidence that the active ingredients can pull some vitamin A precursors out of circulation–although researchers did not consider the reduction significant.

So how do the spreads taste? In a highly unscientific study, my colleague Janice Horowitz and I sampled both products. Without telling Janice which was which, I spread Benecol, Take Control and regular margarine on three pieces of whole wheat bread. Then she did the same for me. Overall, we found all three tasted pretty much alike, although Janice described a “funny mouth feel” after eating the cholesterol-fighting spreads. I found Benecol marginally less tasty.

Neither product is calorie free: both contain mostly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. So if you eat too much, you’ll be sure to gain weight, which can raise your cholesterol levels all by itself. Nor will the spreads do you any good if you spend all your waking hours in front of a television or computer screen.

The biggest catch is that you have to eat three servings a day for the rest of your life. When test subjects stopped using the spreads, their cholesterol levels crept back up within a week. It’s sort of like taking medicine–medicine that costs as much as $5 for a week’s supply.

Let’s face it: even though these designer margarines appear to be safe now, who knows what we’ll learn after hundreds of millions of people have eaten them? If you want to be part of a giant experiment that could very well save you from a heart attack but might expose you to unknown risks, be my guest.

To learn more, visit www.benecol.com or www.takecontrol.com on the Web. You can send Christine e-mail at gorman@time.com

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