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Has the oat-bran bubble burst?

Talk about buzzwords. It spawned hundreds of new products, tens of millions of dollars in sales, and created a national shortage of a grain once used to feed horses.

All a company had to do was sprinkle a few flakes on its bread, doughnuts, potato chips, or even beer, slap the magic words oat bran" on the label, and watch the cash roll in.

But a study published in the January 18th edition of The New England Journal of Medicine may pop the oat bran bubble. The new findings don't disprove oat bran's ability to lower cholesterol, but they do cast doubt on it. "We wanted to find out whether oat

bran lowers blood cholesterol because it contains soluble fiber or simply because it displaces foods that contain saturated fat and cholesterol:' explains Frank Sacks, of Harvard Medical School.

So he and his colleagues compared oat bran to a mixture of cream of wheat and refined white flour, which are low in both fat and fiber.

Every day for six weeks, 20 volunteers ate muffins and entrees containing around 90 grams of either oat bran or the refined-wheat mixture. That's equal to about three bowls of hot cereal.1

The results: "Oat bran didn't significantly lower serum cholesterol levels any more than low-fiber refined wheat," says Sacks.

Then why did James Anderson, of the University of Kentucky, find that cholesterol levels dropped 13 percent in people who ate about 100 grams of oat bran a day?2 And why did Jeremiah Stamler, of Northwestern University School of Medicine, find that cholesterol dropped three percent in people who ate 35 to 40 grams of oatmeal or oat bran a day?


No one is sure. Sacks believes that the oat-bran eaters in Stamler's study ate slightly less saturated fat than a control group of non-oat-bran eaters-and that the difference in fat intake was too small to be detected. What's more, he says, the modest three-percent drop in cholesterol might have been due to chance.

However, in Anderson's study, both the oat-bran and non-oat-bran eaters were fed all their meals in the hospital, so neither group could have eaten less fat than the other.2

Why these results differ from Sacks' is unclear. It's possible that:

* Anderson's (or Sacks') results were a fluke.

* Oat bran has a greater impact on people with high cholesterol levels. In Sacks' study, the participants' average cholesterol level was low (186); only two of the 20 people were over 220. In Stamler's study, cholesterol averaged 200, and in Anderson's, levels exceeded 260. n Oat bran may lower cholesterol only slightly. "Our study might not have detected a drop in cholesterol of less than four percent," says Sacks. "But if you have to eat 90 grams a day to get such a small change in cholesterol, that's not very practical."


Sacks doesn't doubt that some types of soluble fiber lower cholesterol-it's oat bran he questions. "Certain soluble fibers, such as guar, psyllium, and pectin, definitely lower cholesterol:' he says. "The soluble fiber in oat bran does not, or it does so to only a minor degree."

Maybe that'll teach companies like Quaker Oats not to plaster exaggerated claims about heart disease on their labels before the science is more certain. consumers? Waiting for more studies to clarify oat bran's benefits. Until then, it certainly doesn't hurt to continue eating oat bran or oatmeal for breakfast.

Like any whole grain, oats are low in fat and are a decent source of total soluble plus insoluble) fiber. A two-thirds-cup serving of cooked oatmeal contains almost 3 grams of fiber; oat bran has 4 grams. The National Cancer Institute recommends eating 20 to 30 grams of total fiber a day, yet most people get only 10.

On the other hand, if you've been eating oats every day, you can (whew!) take an occasional breather. Try Wheatena, Shredded Wheat, or some other low-fat, whole-grain cereal.

And if you're beginning to feel like a volleyball, bouncing back and forth with each new headline about cholesterol, don't despair. Researchers sometimes take years to get to the final answer. Once you accept that, it's easier to take the next bounce of the ball.

In the meantime, stick to the tried-and-true method of lowering cholesterol: eat less saturated fat and cholesterol.

Anyway, oat bran always was-excuse the expression-just icing on the cake.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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