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Can Tortilla Chips Really Be Healthy For You?

You probably remember the blog I posted a couple of months ago about the marketing "slight of hand" involving the retooling of potato chips made with Olestra. Brandeis University researchers are working on a different way to make tortilla chips that sounds healthier, but as it is with Olestra, only on the surface.

Scientists have tested chips fried in an oil that contains phytosterol, a soybean-based chemical that can "soak up" LDL cholesterol without affecting the taste. In fact, 10 patients lowered their LDL cholesterol 15 percent and their overall cholesterol by 10 percent after eating two 1-ounce servings of phytosterol-enriched tortilla chips each day for four weeks.

Phytosterols, which can be extracted from other plants besides soybeans, have been used for a long time as a cholesterol-lowering additive in some margarines. Brandeis researchers developed a method of extending sterols' cholesterol-reducing benefits to oil used for fried processed foods. The sterols are heated and cooled so that they recrystallize in a form compatible with fried foods.

Don't be surprised if you don't see these chips on grocery store shelves by late summer. A California-based snack food research company recently bought licensing rights to the process and is reviewing marketing strategies with another food product developer. Additionally, the FDA is reviewing an application for the new use of a sterol additive and considering what health claims can be made on packaging.

Although the scientist who led the project doesn't advocate eating chips at all, his goal was to make them healthier, such as they can be considering they're still fried, processed foods. And, the high temperatures used to cook them could potentially cause the formation of carcinogenic substances, a risk that remains even if the trans fat is removed.

Brandeis University January 31, 2005

Forbes January 30, 2005

Journal of Nutrition 134:1395-1399, June 2004

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