Fighting cholesterol with saturated fat?

A saturated fat from beef, linked to a soy-derived compound, makes a promising cholesterol-lowering compound, according to a nutrition scientist at the University of Nebraska.

CHOLESTEROL MEDICINE? The left spoon holds a gooey sterol-ester used in cholesterol-lowering margarine, while the right spoon holds a new cholesterol-lowering powder. B. Hampton/Univ. of Neb.

The soy compound, a sterol ester, is one of two plant-based compounds already used in margarines that prevent the body from absorbing cholesterol (SN: 5/30/98, p. 348). By chemically linking the ester to a saturated fat from beef tallow, Timothy P. Carr has synthesized a compound with roughly seven times the cholesterol-lowering potency of the ester alone.

In 4-week experiments that are as-yet unpublished, Carr fed groups of hamsters the ester-fat compound in amounts ranging from the equivalent of what people consume in ester-rich margarines to many times that amount. “At all doses we see a much greater cholesterol-lowering ability from our compound than from the commercially available sterol ester,” says Carr.

The “magic ingredient,” Carr says, is the beef fat’s stearic acid, a saturated fat found in a host of plant and animal tissues. Work by other researchers over the years has shown that stearic acid has an uncanny capacity to lower cholesterol.

Unlike gooey sterol-ester, the new fat-ester compound is a smooth, tasteless, and heat-stable powder. It could be used in baked goods, dairy products, or even frozen desserts, Carr says. However, he adds, “we envision a soft gel that people might take in the morning with their blood-pressure medicine.”

Carr is now comparing how well the new compounds and statin drugs lower cholesterol in lab animals. Tests in people could follow soon, he says.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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