By Stephenie Karony

Wednesday, September 15, 1999

Benecol can help with
cholesterol—for a price

Question: I saw a TV commercial on a new margarine called Benecol. The ad says that eating the recommended daily amount, one and one half tablespoons, will lower an individual's cholesterol level. What's the catch?

Answer: It appears that the only catch is its price. More on that later.

Benecol is a new FDA approved product. It contains no saturated fat, cholesterol, or trans fat. Scientific studies show that for individuals with elevated cholesterol, Benecol lowers the "bad" LDL cholesterol by as much as 10 percent if eaten in sufficient quantities.

To achieve this degree of cholesterol reduction you must eat one and a half teaspoons three times per day. Benecol has no effect on the "good" HDL cholesterol.

Benecol's base is made up of canola and soybean oil, both of which contain alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. These two oils are considered "heart healthy" when eaten in moderation.

Benecol derives all of its calories from fat. Each individual serving, one and one half teaspoons, contains 45 calories or about 5 grams of fat, which is similar to most tub margarine. If you limit your intake to the recommended daily amount, and use it in place of butter and margarine, it shouldn't add significantly to your overall fat intake.

Here's how it works. In addition to oil, Benecol also contains cholesterol lowering ingredients called plant stanol esters. These plant chemicals resemble dietary cholesterol, which is found only in animal foods.

Because of this resemblance, your body mistakes these stanols for dietary cholesterol and tries to absorb them, but cannot do so. The effect is that absorption of all cholesterol, including dietary, is reduced. And because you're substituting Benecol for cholesterol-rich butter and cholesterol- producing trans fat found in margarine, you'll be taking in less cholesterol to begin with.

Benecol is not a miracle food. It will not have any impact on other risk factors for heart disease, such as being overweight, having a sedentary lifestyle, hypertension, diabetes or smoking.

The price of Benecol is quite high. It sells for about $5 for 21 servings (one week's supply). Remember that for Benecol to have its optimal cholesterol-lowering effect, you must eat 3 servings per day.

That comes to about $20.00 a month for each person in your family using this product.

If you don't know what your blood levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol are, see your doctor and get a test. I don't recommend using Benecol if your cholesterol levels are within the healthy range. For people already within that range, Benecol appears to have no effect, and the price is too high to be spending your money without receiving any benefit.

I personally believe that adding one and a half tablespoons of fat a day, in the form of margarine, is too much fat. If you already eat that much butter or margarine, and are determined to keep doing so, then switching to Benecol might help lower your cholesterol.

But here's a better alternative: if you're willing to give up the added fat instead of just switching types of fat, then I recommend you keep your cholesterol levels low by exercising regularly, eating a low saturated fat diet, quitting smoking if you smoke, and drinking alcohol in moderation, if at all.

Stephenie Karony is a certified health
and fitness instructor, a personal trainer and the author of
"Body Shaping with Free Weights." Send questions to her at
P.O. Box 262, Wailuku Hi. Her column appears on Wednesdays.

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