Heart : Olive Oil May Boost Heart Health

Food containing olive oil can carry labels saying it may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, the government says, citing limited evidence from a dozen scientific studies about the benefits of monounsaturated fats.

As long as people don't increase the number of calories they consume daily, the Food and Drug Administration confirmed a reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease when people replace foods high in saturated fat with the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. That means a change as simple as sauteing food in two tablespoons of olive oil instead of butter may be healthier for your heart.

"Since CHD is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the United States, it is a public health priority to make sure that consumers have accurate and useful information on reducing their risk," Lester M. Crawford, acting FDA commissioner, said in a prepared statement.

"It's good news for consumers," said Bob Bauer, president of the North American Olive Oil Association, which sought the qualified health claim on Aug. 28, 2003. "Olive oil is a healthy product to help them fight heart disease."

Recent research has underscored the heart benefits from so-called Mediterranean diets high in unsaturated fats from vegetable oil, nuts and such fish as salmon and tuna. Mortality rates dropped by more than 50 percent among elderly Europeans who stuck to such diets and led healthy lifestyles, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September.

The North American Olive Oil Association included 88 publications to back its claim for the heart-healthy benefits of olive oil. The group wanted to make the claim for monounsaturated fats contained in just one tablespoon of olive oil per day.

Olive oil and certain food containing olive oil can now indicate that "limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about two tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil," the FDA concluded.

"I think FDA just took a more conservative view," Bauer said.

Manufacturers waited for the FDA's precise wording before revising labels. "I expect, over time, most every container of olive oil will have this," he said.

Already, American restaurants and consumers drive $450 million in olive oil sales per year. Supermarket sales in 2003 accounted for 132 million pounds of olive oil, up by nearly one-third over the past six years. Bauer said he expects the label change to spur a larger uptick in sales.

According to the American Heart Association coronary heart disease caused 502,189 deaths - or one in five deaths - in 2001, the most current statistic available. Another 13.2 million Americans that year survived the heart attacks, chest pains and other ailments caused by coronary heart disease.

Along with lowering cholesterol, cutting out cigarettes and exercising, the group says Americans can boost heart health by eating foods low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. AnAmerican Heart Association spokeswoman declined comment on the FDA's action until it reviews the health claim.

The FDA discounted most of the submitted studies because the methodology made it difficult to tease out the effect of the monounsaturated fats in olive oil. Of a dozen studies that survived the cut, four were the most persuasive.

Thirty-three healthy young American men ate diets high in saturated fats from butter or cocoa butter, olive oil's monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats from soybean oil. The soybean and olive oil groups significantly lowered total and bad LDL cholesterol. In another trial involving 21 middle-aged Spanish women, those with diets in which olive oil replaced 8 percent of total daily calories from saturated fats lowered their total and bad cholesterol while significantly boosting good HDL cholesterol.

Forty-one young Spanish men lowered total and bad LDL cholesterol with an olive oil diet. Levels of good cholesterol did not drop in the olive oil group, as they did for youthful peers who replaced calories from saturated fats with carbohydrates.

And 22 healthy, middle-aged Spanish men with slightly elevated cholesterol counts were put on a four-week diet high in saturated fat. Those who switched to a diets high in olive oil and those who replaced calories from saturated fats with carbohydrates lowered total and bad LDL cholesterol levels.

It's the third time the FDA granted a qualified health claim for conventional food. In March, the agency said "supportive but not conclusive research" shows eating 1.5 ounces of walnuts per day may reduce coronary heart disease risk. In September, it issued a similar qualified claim for the heart-healthy benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

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