The growing flurry of activity in low-carbohydrate diets is helping to fuel renewed interest in "starch blockers," which are dietary supplements aimed at those who don't want to give up pasta, chips, bread and other starchy foods.
While the first generation of starch blockers hit the market some 30 years ago, the latest products have seen strong growth as consumers look for ways to eat large amounts of these popular foods without expanding their waistlines.
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"The Atkins diet has resurrected consumer interest in starch blockers," notes Richard Cleland, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Advertising Practices. "These products are starting to become quite popular."
So popular, in fact, that a preliminary market analysis conducted last week by Spins, a San Francisco-based marketing company that tracks natural products, found that sales of leading starch blockers in natural products supermarkets and mainstream food, drug and retail chains had jumped 900 percent since September 2002.
While there are many different brands, starch blockers generally come from bean extracts. They purport to enable consumers to eat their favorite high-carb foods with abandon by inhibiting production of a digestive enzyme called amylase.
So what does nutrition research say about these products and claims?
A 1982 study tested the ability of starch blockers to reduce absorption of a high-carb meal of spaghetti sauce, pasta and bread. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study concluded that starch blockers "do not inhibit the digestion and absorption of starch calories in human beings."
The National Nutritional Foods Association, an industry group, agrees that studies showed that the first generation of starch blockers were ineffective. But the group also cites one recent study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine Research that found some weight loss benefits to a starch blocker.
For George Blackburn, associate director of nutrition at the Harvard Medical School, starch blockers "are unproven, unscientific and unsafe." The dietary supplements are the subject of a lawsuit by the Maine attorney general's office and are also under scrutiny from federal regulators. "We're aware of these products," said Cleland. "We will be looking at starch blockers and are trying to learn the potential science behind them before these products become household words."
So if you want to avoid messing with supplements but are looking for help in cutting back on carbohydrates, here's what experts suggest:
Aim for a reasonable daily intake of carbs. Current recommendations are to consume about half of daily calories as carbohydrates. The National Academy of Sciences sets 130 grams per day of carbs as the recommended dietary allowance for children and adults. (That's the amount needed to produce enough glucose for the brain.) Food surveys suggest that Americans eat far more: Most men consume 200 to 330 grams of carbohydrates per day; women, 180 to 230 grams. So there's lots of room for trimming.
Get your carbs from fruit and vegetables first . A large apple (about three inches in diameter) has 29 grams of carbohydrates. A seven-inch banana has about 27. A half-cup of broccoli has five. There are about 24 grams in a medium sweet potato; 10 in 10 baby carrots; 17 in a cup of tomato soup and about 27 grams in a half-cup of baked beans. You get the idea.
Choose whole-grain carbs. Experts on all sides of the carbohydrate debate agree it's better to get your carbs from whole-grain products than from highly processed white flour.
Read food labels closely. On bread, pasta, cereals and other carbohydrate-rich foods, the guidelines say to "choose foods that list whole wheat, whole oats, whole rye, brown rice, bulgur, graham flour, whole grain corn, popcorn or pearl barley as the first ingredient." By the way, wheat flour, enriched flour and degerminated corn flour "are not whole grains," the guidelines note.
-- Sally Squires
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