Improvement is the name of the game lately. Americans need to improve heart health, and what better way than through the stomach? Companies are revamping their product formulations, taking products that are poor in nutrition and injecting them with a wealth of health. To put it more simply, says Holly DiMauro of Holly’s Oatmeal, Torrington, CT, “If it’s already good, let’s make it even better.”
Even foods typically thought of as healthy are being redesigned in healthier and more creative ways. John Westerdahl, Ph.D., M.Ph., R.D., director of health science for Bragg Live Food Products, Santa Barbara, CA, says, “Trends include more healthy fats, like extra-virgin olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids (and eliminating saturated and trans fats), cholesterol-lowering soluble-fibers (such as oats), more food ingredients containing important phytochemicals such as blueberries, açaí, goji berries, pomegranate, red and purple grapes and others, and healthier alternative sweeteners such as stevia.”
Butter/peanut butter. Hydrogenated oil. Sugar. Fat. Trans fats. These are the things that come to mind when people think of peanut butter or margarine spreads.
According to T.J. McIntyre, general manager of the natural channel at GFA Brands, Inc., Paramus, NJ, “Most conventional margarine products contain added trans fats, which raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL). Further, some brands that have taken the step of removing trans fats by taking out partially hydrogenated oil, have replaced it with another chemically modified fat using intersterification processing (which we consider too ‘unstudied’ to add to our own food products).”
Luckily, there are natural products that take out the bad elements and replace them with more nutritious ingredients. For example, Earth Balance spreads are low in saturated fat and are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. The spreads contain a patented oil that in clinical tests has proven to lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, says McIntyre.
Peanut butter, too, is now available with healthy doses of omega-3s already included. Hearts&Minds replaced 40% of the peanut oil typically found in peanut butter with olive oil, and then enriched it with omega-3s (EPA/DHA) to provide 100 mg per serving. Also, different varieties of nut butters can offer the unique health benefits of each particular nut such as almonds or sunflower seeds. Once Again Nut Butter offers several varieties of nut butter that also offer 20% of the recommended daily value of omega-3s per serving from flaxseed, according to the company’s Web site.
Chocolate. This delectable favorite is already widely known for its positive effects on heart health because of its ability to reduce stress by inducing the release of endorphins in the brain and for its antioxidant effects.
A study published in the Journal of Hypertension concluded, “In healthy humans, flavanol-rich cocoa induced vasodilation via activation of the nitric oxide system, providing a plausible mechanism for the protection that flavanol-rich foods induce against coronary events” (1).
To make chocolate even more dutiful to heart health, companies are pumping it full of functional ingredients. Bija Omega Truffles from Lynden, WA-based Flora Health/Udo’s offer a rich blend of organic ingredients and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. According to the company, each package contains a full serving of Udo’s 3-6-9 Oil Blend to provide eight grams of essential fatty acids, and adds, “We even had to create a special chocolate mold to make all those EFAs fit!” The truffles are available in 70% bitter dark chocolate with cocoa filling, and also milk chocolate with hazelnut filling and white chocolate with Canadian maple, offering a variety of chocolate options with health benefits for those who may not like the bitter taste of dark chocolate.
Companies are working on pumping up antioxidant content even more by including superfruits. In addition, raw chocolate is becoming increasingly popular. Because the ingredients in raw chocolate are not cooked past a certain temperature, more of the precious nutrients remain in tact.
For example, Quito, Ecuador-based Pacari Chocolates offers only organic dark chocolate made from no less than 60% cacao, including raw chocolate bars, cacao nibs and chocolate-covered tropical fruits such as guava and golden berry. Early this year, the company will introduce Cocoa-Cacao, whole roasted cacao beans covered in a layer of chocolate and dusted with cocoa powder (available in natural cocoa, banana and ginger). Debra Shepherd, manager of sales and marketing for Pacari Chocolates, says, “We have not yet done antioxidant testing on this latest addition to the Pacari line, but we’re sure it will rate high.”
Considering “the yummy factor” and the health benefits associated with chocolate, it may be tempting to overindulge, but it is still important to monitor chocolate intake. Shepherd notes, “As with practically any food, if not eaten in moderation, chocolate can have negative effects. To be healthy, it is important to consider your daily caloric needs and what other foods you are consuming.”
Wine. Red wine contains a dazzling array of bioactive compounds, including flavonols, highly colored anthocyanins, as well as phenolic acids and the polyphenol, resveratrol. Resveratrol has been somewhat of a superstar as of late, as researchers are identifying it as the compound responsible for the “French Paradox” (eating rich, fatty foods while maintaining cardiovascular health).
A 2009 study said, “Indications for resveratrol have been developed, including the prevention of age-related disorders such as neurodegenerative diseases, inflammation, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease” (2), although the compound’s bioavailability from wine alone has not been confirmed.
But the subject of wine for health has not been without controversy. Drinking too much will negate its positive effects and conventional wines may have other dangers lurking in them. According to a study by the European Pesticides Action Network, “grapes are among the most contaminated food products and receive a higher dose of synthetic pesticides than almost any other crop.”
Dana Cappelloni, working in marketing and public relations for Organic Vintners, based in Boulder, CO, says, “When we eat food that is grown with fungicides, herbicides and pesticides, we experience negative repercussions in our bodies that may manifest as disease or illness.”
Hop On The Grain Train
For customers who want to whip up their own heart-healthy whole grain concoctions, retailers can offer various types of grains in bulk form. Be sure to keep them in airtight containers in a refrigerated section of the store to prevent them from going rancid. Here’s a cheat sheet of some of the less common varieties of ancient grains (1):
• Amaranth: High in protein, calcium and iron, amaranth is a small, golden-colored grain that is nutty flavored. Amaranth can be used to thicken soups, ground into flour and used to prepare baked goods; it can be prepared and eaten in the same way as rice or used to make cereal.
• Farro: This whole grain has a nutty flavor and a chewy texture. Farro is high in fiber, protein, magnesium, and vitamins A, B, C and E. The grain must be soaked before use and takes hours of cooking to become tender. However, it can be purchased in flour form and used to make baked goods and pasta.
• Millet: A tiny grain, millet can be cooked and eaten like rice or used to make baked goods such as breads and muffins. Millet can also be mixed with sliced fruits or vegetables and is a good source of manganese, magnesium and phosphorous.
• Spelt: Available in whole grain or flour form with a nutty flavor, spelt is a nutrient-rich grain that can be used in preparing baked goods or purchased already packaged in the form of spelt pasta and bread. Spelt is rich in manganese, fiber, phosphorous, niacin and protein.
• Triticale: A type of whole grain that is a hybrid of wheat and rye, triticale has a nutty-rye flavor and can be used in preparing baked goods such as breads and muffins. Triticale is a good source of protein, folate, manganese and magnesium.
• Quinoa: This gluten-free, high-protein grain is typically cultivated in the Andes Mountains of South America. It is said to have a mild, buttery flavor and can be substituted for rice in most recipes.
Also, The Mayo Clinic suggests these tips for adding more whole grains to your diet:
Therefore, to take full advantage of the heart-healthy benefits of red wine, it is essential to choose an organic wine to avoid any dangerous effects of these chemicals, which have been associated with inflammation, cancer and respiratory trouble. Organic Vintners imports over 50 wines from eight different countries, with all wines made from 100% certified organic grapes and vinted and bottled in a certified organic facility.
Like chocolate, moderation is important when it comes to red wine.
Healthy Made More Healthy
Whole grains are typically associated with their fiber content, but are now becoming recognized for their vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content as well. One study showed that whole grains have as high or higher antioxidant activity as certain fruits, as expressed in Trolox equivalents/100 grams (TE). The study states, “Whole grain breakfast cereals analyzed in this study contained from 2,200–3,500 TE. By comparison, fruits generally ranged from 600–1,700 TE, with a high of 2200 TE for red plums. Berries averaged 3,700 TE and vegetables averaged 450 TE with a high of 1,400 TE for red cabbage” (3).
Taking these benefits into consideration, companies are creating more whole grain alternatives for existing products or reformulating their ingredient lists altogether. Todd Einig, sale manager for Greenfield, MA-based New England Natural Bakers says, “Companies small and large are marketing whole grains as an added benefit of their product. Certifications from third-party whole grain institutes are becoming more prevalent as well.”
This is probably due to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approving heart health claims for whole grains in mid-2009. However, DiMauro of Holly’s Oatmeal says, don’t forget about the little guys. Certification is expensive for small companies—to have the heart health claim on her oatmeal box would cost thousands of dollars each year. She recommends to retailers that when looking at products to put on shelves, look at the ingredients, too.
To make improvements, Einig says, “Companies are coupling whole grains with the use of non-hydrogenated oils, antioxidant fruits and high-fiber ingredients to promote heart health.” New England Natural Bakers produces organic and all-natural whole grain granolas, meuslis, granola bars and trail mixes. Einig says, “We pride ourselves on sourcing the best quality ingredients that contain no additives, preservatives or GMOs. What our products do contain are whole grains, antioxidants, omega-3s and -6s, high fiber and best of all, great taste.”
Even foods such as oatmeal have been made even healthier, hard as it is to believe. Of one variety of her oatmeal, DiMauro says, “It’s called Wickedly Plain because it is the farthest things from plain…we are constantly boosting the nutritional value of that product.” And, it has the stats to back it up. Ingredients for Holly’s Wickedly Plain Oatmeal include the following: whole grain oats, rolled whole wheat, rye, triticale, barley, oat bran, Scottish oats, seven-grain hot cereal, flax meal, quinoa, puffed organic amaranth and milk protein isolate and soy grits. Cranberry Almond, Goji Berry and Apricot Maple Nut flavors are also available, all with a six-minute stovetop cook time (three minutes in the microwave). Because of the many different varieties of grains, the oatmeal contains a unique composition of vitamins, minerals, omegas, antioxidants and a soaring amount of fiber—one serving offers 80% of the daily recommended amount of fiber, says DiMauro, without any added sugar or salt.
The digestive system is closely associated with heart health due to the cardiovascular system’s response to inflammation. Inflammatory conditions such as colitis and Crohn’s stress the body to the point where the heart begins to suffer. As another example, heart-healthy products previously unavailable to those with gluten sensitivities now can enjoy varieties of breakfast cereals, granolas and nutrition bars. For instance, Holly’s Oatmeal offers two gluten-free varieties: plain and cranberry. In addition, the ancient grains contained within her oatmeals are said to be easier on the digestive system.
Make a Better Choice and Your Heart Will Rejoice
Sometimes, heart health simply comes down to our choices. Consumers can make improvements to better their health and retailers can help guide them in their food choices. Be ready for customers struggling to hold onto their January resolutions and advise them that small changes are a great way to improve heart health and stick to it.
Apple cider vinegar. For example, apple cider vinegar is an ingredient consumers can easily incorporate into their diet. One of the easiest ways is to use apple cider vinegar to replace mayonnaise in certain recipes as one way to support weight loss. Westerdahl of Bragg Live Food Products suggests, “Making a health drink of one to two teaspoons (or even a tablespoon) to eight ounces of purified water and sweetened with honey or stevia makes a refreshing health drink to enjoy with meals or any time.”
Although scientific research is still catching up to the mountains of anecdotal evidence that apple cider vinegar has positive effects on heart health, Sandi Enriquez, director of retail and business development for Fleischmann’s Vinegar says, “There is a Japanese study in which scientists were able to prove through lab testing with mice that a steady diet of apple cider vinegar can assist digestion and weight loss. Of course, these results can also help the consumer because of the direct correlation between weight, diabetes and heart health.”
Fleischmann’s offers three vinegars that are raw, unfiltered and unpasteurized: Classic Organic Vinegar, Organic Red Wine Vinegar and Organic Apple Cider Vinegar. Enriquez emphasizes that the vinegars contain “the mother,” or the healthy live culture, that transforms apple cider, grapes and organically grown plants into vinegar.
But, says Westerdahl, “Using raw apple cider vinegar that has been heated does not destroy all the beneficial and nutritive properties of the vinegar. In fact, scientists believe there are many other different important health components found in apple cider vinegar, such as the phytochemcials and antioxidants found in apples to make the vinegar.” Bragg is expanding its Apple Cider Vinegar Drink line with three new flavors: Ginger Spice, Apple-Cinnamon and Concord Grape-Açaí (which contains heart-healthy antioxidants, says Westerdahl).
Salt. Yes, salt use is being widely rethought because of its effect on blood pressure. However, says Val John Anderson, executive vice president and director of sales and marketing for Mineral Resources International, Inc., based in Orem, UT, says, “To maintain the heart and keep it in excellent health, one shouldn’t just look at reducing sodium, but doing so within a larger framework of increasing other essential minerals and micronutrients that are commonly deficient today.”
Anderson alludes to the important balance of essential electrolytes. At a time when mineral depletion in soil is producing crops with lower nutrient densities, sodium intake becomes an even more important issue as many Americans are deficient in magnesium and potassium. These two essential electrolytes play a “critical role” in supporting healthy blood pressure and heart health, emphasizes Anderson.
Fortisalt, from Mineral Resources International, can help people reduce sodium in recipes and their diet by more then 50% and fortifying food with micro-minerals including magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and chromium, says Anderson. This salty-tasting spray is available in a smaller tabletop-sized bottle that comes with a spray nozzle, or a larger kitchen bottle.
Sometimes a reduction in salt, means a reduction in flavor, especially for Americans’ sodium-trained tastebuds. Sodium-free herbs and spices are a perfect way to inject flavor back into recipes. Bragg Live Food Products also offers Bragg Organic Sprinkle, a seasoning made of 24 herbs and spices with no sodium, and Bragg Organic Sea Kelp Delight Seasoning which is also very low in sodium and yet very flavorful.
EFAs. Flax is a great vegetarian source of essential fatty acids for those who cannot eat or do not like fish. With a neutral to slightly nutty flavor, it can be added to endless recipes and foods. Premium Gold Flax offers Dash O’ Flax, a natural condiment in a tabletop shaker that can be used to easily top cereals, salads, yogurt, sauces and much more with a healthy sprinkling of flax omega 3s. Deborah Miller, senior vice president and co-owner of the Denhoff, ND-based company, says it’s a great replacement for salt, nuts or other toppers, as it is gluten, nut and lactose free. For those looking to make better dessert choices, the company offers Flaxseed Cookies, which are made from the company’s flax flour.
So, from the beginning of a meal to the end, companies recreated heart healthy options for Americans much needing them. Westerdahl says, “For too long have food companies been responsible for creating food products that have contributed to the heart disease deaths of millions. I am happy to see when food companies actively make products that promote good health.” WF
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, Feb. 2010