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The New Disease Fighting Foods

Here's a confession: I've been writing about nutrition for years, so I'm well aware of just how good salmon is for you-but I'm not wild about it. In fact, I never eat it or any other fish. While I'm spilling my diet secrets, I might as well admit a certain brewed green beverage is not, well, my cup of tea. But I worry: By skipping salmon, one of the foods highest in heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids, and green tea, with its cancer-fighting antioxidants, am I seriously shortchanging my health?

Turns out I'm not the only one with that concern. That's why food companies have pumped new products full of disease-fighting compounds identical to those found in some of the world's healthiest fare. Fortification-adding nutrients to foods in which they're not naturally present-is hardly a new idea. It started in 1924 when salt got an iodine boost; not long after, vitamin D was added to milk and iron to white flour. But today manufacturers are going beyond adding vitamins and minerals. They're enhancing their products with supernutrients whose purpose isn't to simply protect against nutritional deficiencies, but to actively prevent disease. For instance, the live and active cultures, or good bacteria, in yogurt can now be found in boxes of cereal and energy bars. And the same form of heart-healthy omega-3s in seafood is being added to cheese, yogurt, and orange juice (minus the fishy flavor). "Over 200 fortified foods have been launched in the past year alone, with many more in the pipeline," says Diane Toops, the news and trends editor of the trade publications Wellness Foods and Food Processing. "You can't miss seeing them at the supermarket- they're in almost every aisle."

But whether they should be in your cart is another matter. "In many instances you'd be smart to buy these products," says Roberta Anding, R.D., a Houston-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "But they're not for everybody-and you have to be careful that you aren't so swayed by the addition of the supernutrient that you forget to ask yourself whether you should be eating a lot of that type of food in the first place." We worked with Anding and other experts to help determine which of the newest fortified foods to take to the checkout- and which to leave on the shelf.

Foods with Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are three main types of this polyunsaturated fat-EPA, DHA, and ALA. The first two are found naturally in fish and fish oils. Soybeans, canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed contain ALA.

Now in
Margarine, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, waffles, cereal, crackers, and tortilla chips.

What they do
Powerful weapons against heart disease, omega-3 fatty acids help lower blood pressure, control the inflammation inside artery walls that can lead to clogging, and regulate heartbeat. In addition, they're important for brain function, helping to prevent depression. If you're trying to ward off heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends consuming two or more 4-ounce servings of fatty fish a week (that's about 2,800 to 3,500 milligrams of DHA and EPA a week-the equivalent of 400 to 500 milligrams daily). It also suggests eating ALA-rich foods but hasn't determined a specific amount.

Should you bite?
Most women's diets pack plenty of ALA but just 60 to 175 milligrams of DHA and EPA daily-not nearly enough. Fatty fish is the best way to bump up your intake, says Anding, because it's the most concentrated source of omega-3s in addition to being low in calories, high in protein, and rich in the minerals zinc and selenium. "But if you don't eat it, fortified products are an excellent substitute," says Peter Howe, Ph.D., director of the Nutritional Physiology Research Center at the University of South Australia. In a study he conducted, 47 overweight men and women-most of whom weren't regular fish eaters- consumed foods with added omega-3s. "After six months blood levels of the omega-3s EPA and DHA increased enough to have a protective effect on the heart," he says.

You can also take advantage of these fortified products if you're pregnant or breast-feeding, especially if morning sickness makes fish less appealing than usual. "Moms-to-be may want to boost their intake of EPA and DHA because it might help prevent pregnancy complications like preterm labor and high blood pressure," says Emily Oken, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention at Harvard Medical School. "Studies show these omega-3s may also boost the IQ of babies who get it from breast milk."

What to buy
Look for products with added DHA and EPA that you can substitute for other healthy foods in your diet. Eggland's Best omega-3 eggs (52 mg of DHA and EPA combined per egg), Horizon Organic Reduced Fat Milk Plus DHA (32 mg per cup), Breyers Smart yogurt (32 mg DHA per 6-ounce carton), and Omega Farms Monterey Jack Cheese (75 mg of DHA and EPA combined per ounce) all fit the bill. If you see a product boasting several hundred milligrams of omega- 3s, check the label carefully. "It's probably made with flax or another source of ALA, and your body won't be able to use more than 1 percent of the omega- 3s from it," says William Harris, Ph.D., a professor of medicine at the University of South Dakota. "So if a product provides 400 milligrams of ALA, it's equivalent to getting only 4 milligrams of EPA."

Foods with Phytosterols
Tiny amounts of these plant compounds are found naturally in nuts, oils, and produce.

Now in
Orange juice, cheese, milk, margarine, almonds, cookies, muffins, and yogurt.

What they do
They block the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestine.

Should you bite?
If your LDL (bad cholesterol) level is 130 milligrams per deciliter or higher, the U.S. government's National Cholesterol Education Program recommends adding 2 grams of phytosterols to your diet daily-an amount that's practically impossible to get from food. (For example, it would take 1¼ cups of corn oil, one of the richest sources.) "This amount should help lower your LDL by 10 to 14 percent within two weeks," says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., a member of the American Heart Association's nutrition committee. If your LDL cholesterol is 100 to 129 mg/dL (slightly above an optimal level), talk to your doctor, suggests Kris-Etherton. Pass altogether if you're pregnant or nursing, as researchers haven't determined whether extra sterols are safe during these times. For the same reason, don't give sterol-fortified products to kids.

What to buy
Find one or two items that you can easily swap for foods you're apt to consume daily to avoid eating extra calories. Try Minute Maid Heart Wise orange juice (1 g sterols per cup), Benecol spread (850 mg sterols per tablespoon), Lifetime Low- Fat Cheddar (660 mg per ounce), or Promise Activ Super- Shots (2 g per 3 ounces). For maximum benefit, split the 2 grams you need between breakfast and dinner, says Cyril Kendall, Ph.D., a research scientist at the University of Toronto. "That way you'll block the absorption of cholesterol at two meals instead of just one."

Foods with Probiotics
When live, active cultures of beneficial bacteria are added to foods specifically to give them a health boost-not just to ferment the product (as with yogurt)-they're called probiotics.

Now in Yogurt, frozen yogurt, cereal, bottled smoothies, cheese, energy bars, chocolate, and tea.

What they do
Probiotics help stave off urinary tract infections and keep your digestive system happy, helping to reduce and prevent constipation, diarrhea, and bloating. In a study from the University of Oulu in Finland, women who consumed dairy products containing probiotic bacteria three or more times a week were about 80 percent less likely to be diagnosed with a UTI in the last five years than those who did so less than once a week. "The probiotics may hinder the growth of E. coli in the urinary tract, reducing the risk of infection," explains Warren Isakow, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Other research suggests probiotics boost the immune system, helping to prevent colds, flu, and other viruses.

Should you bite?
"Most women could benefit from eating probiotics as a preventive measure," says Anding. "But if you're having stomach trouble, that's even more incentive to consume them." Have one to two servings a day.

What to buy
Seek a brand of yogurt that contains cultures beyond the two needed for the fermentation process- Lactobacillus (L.) bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Those that have reported stomach-soothing benefits include Bifidus regularis (exclusive to Dannon Activia), L. reuteri (only in Stonyfield Farm yogurts), and L. acidophilus (in Yoplait and several other national brands). New technology means probiotics can be added successfully to shelf-stable products like cereal and energy bars (Kashi Vive cereal and Attune bars are two examples), which are good choices especially if you don't like yogurt-but be wary about claims of cultures in frozen yogurt; probiotics may not survive the freezing process very well.

Foods with Green Tea Extracts
Derived from decaffeinated green tea, these extracts contain powerful antioxidants called catechins.

Now in
Nutrition bars, soft drinks, chocolate, cookies, and ice cream.

What they do
These antioxidants fight cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other serious health problems. In an 11-year study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year, Japanese researchers found that women who drank three to four cups of green tea a day reduced their risk of dying from any medical cause by 20 percent. Some early studies suggest green tea boosts metabolism, but more research is needed.

Should you bite?
No fortified product will give you more catechins than a cup of green tea (50 to 100 mg), and it takes far more than that to reap the benefits, says Jack F. Bukowski, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "But if fortified products replace less-thanhealthy foods you typically eat, they're worth including," he says.

What to buy
Tzu T-Bar (75 to 100 mg of catechins) and Luna Berry Pomegranate Tea Cakes (90 mg of catechins) are healthy alternatives to snacks you may already be munching on.