It comes in cereals, muffins, breads, cookies, pasta—even in potato chips. The ubiquitous substance is oat bran, the husks of the cereal grain’s seeds. After studies conducted during the past nine years indicated that oat bran could help to lower blood cholesterol levels, which may be a contributing factor in heart disease, food manufacturers have trumpeted the oat content of their products. But last week, a study published in the Jan. 18 New England Journal of Medicine threatened to knock oat bran off its pedestal. “Oat bran does not lower cholesterol,” said Dr. Frank Sacks, a cholesterol expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and one of the study’s authors. “There is nothing wrong with oat bran, but there is nothing special about it.” In the study, 20 men and women between the ages of 23 and 49, with normal blood cholesterol levels, were divided into two groups. Members of one group each ate 87 g a day of high-fibre oat bran cooked in food or muffins, while members of the second group consumed 93 g of lower-fibre wheat bran. After six weeks, the participants switched diets. Researchers found that both diets reduced total levels of cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (which promote the buildup of fatty deposits on the walls of coronary arteries) by seven to eight per cent. But the scientists
concluded that the results had more to do with the fact that the participants had eaten less food high in saturated fats and cholesterol during the test period.
Still, some nutritionists were not surprised by the findings. Said Dr. David Jenkins, a professor of medicine and nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto: “They have taken a mild agent, applied it to individuals who are well and have not seen a big difference.” But for older people with higher levels of cholesterol, he added, it may make a difference. And even though publication of the study caused cereal companies’ stock prices to dip last week, financial analysts predicted that the report would not have any long-term impact. Ronald Morrow, an equities research analyst with Smith Barney in New York City, said that the cereal industry would likely conduct studies aimed at countering the Boston findings.
Although the study appeared to deflate some of the claims made for oat bran, Jenkins, for one, said that people should not be discouraged from including the grain in their diets. Consumers, he added, should simply consider oat bran one of many parts of a healthy diet—rather than a panacea for high cholesterol.
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