Bump bump, bump bump. There it goes again—70 beats per minute, 90,000 beats per day, 32 million beats per year. Its quiet insistence is a big, loud wake-up call: The cardiovascular system needs the right ingredients to keep on ticking.
But how can you keep your finger to the pulse of heart-healthy foods?
"If people stuck to the Mediterranean diet of less meat, more fruits, vegetables, legumes and seafood, they wouldn't have to worry about much else," says Amy Barr, R.D., who runs Marr Barr natural products marketing firm in Longmont, Colo. "But everybody snacks."
Eating omega-3-rich foods like salmon at mealtime, instead of trans-fatty snacks mid-day, decreases LDL (bad) and increases HDL (good) cholesterol, says Dr. Kevin Weiland, author of The Dakota Diet (Basic Health Publications, 2007), which focuses on metabolic syndrome and heart-healthy foods. Soluble fiber from beans, oats and barley also prevents cholesterol absorption and production, while flavonoid-laden fruits and vegetables and soy isofavones block LDL. Meat eaters should opt for the grass-fed bison Weiland dubs "salmon of the prairie," which has more omega-3s and less saturated fat than American beef.
Consumers can also enjoy a heart- healthy toast after a December 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed moderate alcohol intake increases omega-3 levels in plasma and red-blood cells, probably resulting from red wine's polyphenols, which are also found in cocoa and tea.
Also on the beverage front, Numi Organic Tea, based in Oakland, Calif., introduced puerh, a hot, trendy drink for cardio health. A new category for the U.S. tea industry, puerh's extended fermentation process increases levels of polyphenols and statin, a leading cholesterol-reducing drug in the U.S.
Packaged foods are also taking your ticker's demands to heart. "We look at top sellers across our different product types to see which retain great flavor with less sodium," says Michelle Erbs, marketing manager of Petaluma, Calif.-based Amy's Kitchen, which has added sodium-light versions of five existing products. In November, 2008, Eden Foods of Clinton, Mich., introduced organic red quinoa, which boasts more fiber for heart health than millet and wild rice.
Snack-food manufacturers are using plant sterols, or LDL-lowering plant membranes that block dietary-cholesterol absorption. "I would say plant sterols are the top trend in the way that most manufacturers tackle the issue of cholesterol control," says Krista Faron, senior consumer analyst for market-research firm Mintel International. Sterol-fortified packaged foods used to come in one form: spreads. Now the miracle worker is breaking free of margarine. "It's in all sorts of snack foods," Barr says.
The quantities of sterols in fruits, vegetables and nuts generally aren't high enough to promote heart health, a restriction that has helped sales of non-frozen and non-refrigerated plant-sterol products increase 144 percent from November 2007 to November 2008, according to Schaumburg, Ill., market-research firm SPINS. "To gain the cholesterol-lowering benefits, one needs to consume a minimum of 1 gram of plant sterols per day," says Matthew Buckley, executive vice president of sales for Corazonas Foods of Los Angeles. "You would have to eat 25.7 pounds of tomatoes each day to deliver that same value."
Kardea Nutrition's sterol-fortified nutrition bars come in flavors like chai spice and lemon ginger. "If our products do not taste great, people are less likely to live a natural, cholesterol-managing diet day in and day out," says Rob Leighton, founder of the Hamden, Conn., company. "Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in Americans, and providing truly heart-healthy snacking options can allow consumers to enjoy snacking again," Buckley says.
Jessica Rubino is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.