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The smart spreads

In a not-so-distant past, complete strangers could be found in supermarket aisles across America debating the virtues of butter versus margarine. Then they discovered that the saturated fat in butter is a notorious artery clogger. Finally, the choice was clear—margarine it was! That is, until they learned that margarine is chock-full of heart-damaging trans fats. The debate has raged on ever since.

Several years ago, two spreads hit the market that may have rendered the debate moot: Benecol and Take Charge. Research findings suggest the new spreads not only help slash cholesterol levels but may even help cut a person’s risk of heart disease by as much as one-third.

How do they work?

Unlike other margarines, which aim merely not to harm the heart, the new margarines actively work to help it. They’re made with sterol and stanol esters, compounds found in wood, plants, fruits and vegetables that prevent the body from absorbing as much cholesterol as it normally would. Not only do these compounds cut the amount of dietary cholesterol that passes into the blood, they also limit the cholesterol that enters the bloodstream via the liver and intestines. That being the case, when eaten as part of a low-fat diet, the spreads could enhance your cholesterol-control efforts.

Rx on toast?

Does that mean people who take drugs to control high cholesterol should clean out their medicine cabinets and fill their fridges with Benecol and Take Charge instead? Not exactly. It’s important to remember that not everyone who uses these margarines sees significant improvement, and others may need a more drastic cholesterol reduction. If you take cholesterol medication, it may be possible to pare your drug dose by replacing some of the fat in your diet with Benecol or Take Charge—but only your doctor can make that decision.

A little dab will do

Before you start adding a generous dollop of the new margarines to every meal and snack, keep in mind that the maximum benefits are derived from about two tablespoons per day. Remember, too, that the spreads are not calorie free, so going overboard could cause you to put on pounds. In addition, at this early stage, any long-term side effects are unknown.