"I'm not asking you to change who you are," says the hip young woman on the television commercial. "I am asking you to change how you think . . . about pancakes, stir-fry, pasta, brownies, shish kebab, French fries, waffles, salad dressing, birthday cake, carrot cake. . . . "
The TV spot is for Enova, a new cooking and salad oil coming to a grocery store near you. A reformulated mixture of canola and soybean oils, Enova may soon also be an ingredient in commercially prepared foods from spreads to baked goods.
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"Almost every major food company in the United States has expressed some interest in it," says Branin Lane, research manager of nutritional science for agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland, maker of Enova.
The oil is already making inroads in Japan, where it's been sold since 1999 as Econa. Consumers use it to stir-fry vegetables and to deep-fry tempura. Food manufacturers there have put it into mayonnaise and salad dressings.
"It does everything very well," says Lane, who notes "it's a nice, bland, light oil that has no inherent flavor that is passed on to food products. It can be used across the board so you don't have to have a [different] sautéing oil and a salad oil."
But Enova's most distinguishing feature may be its potential health benefits. Through a patented process, the oil has been altered to be rich in a naturally occurring kind of fat that is absorbed just like standard fat but is metabolized differently. Known as diglycerides, these fats aren't broken down easily by the body. So instead of being sent to fat cells for storage, diglycerides are more likely to be shuttled to the liver, where they are burned for energy.
In theory, that could result in less body fat and -- possibly -- weight loss, a selling point underscored on Enova's label, which says, "More is burned as energy. Not stored as fat."
"The key message that we are trying to drive home is the health benefit of Enova that less is stored in the body as fat compared to other vegetable oils," says Paul Tutt, director of the Enova Brand for ADM Kao, the Archer Daniels Midland joint venture that makes the oil. "We feel that Enova is a healthy alternative to cooking with other conventional oils." Limited research backs that up, although a number of leading nutritional scientists caution that the studies are mostly small and brief. The findings suggest that diglycerides may slightly decrease appetite. They also show that after eating diglycerides, blood levels of an unhealthy fat -- trigylcerides -- temporarily drop. (Consistently high trigycleride levels are a heart disease risk factor.)
What about weight loss? A six-month study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined a group of overweight people weighing about 200 pounds. It found an extra two-pound loss in the first three months for those who used Enova compared with those who used other vegetable oils. Walter Willett, chairman of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, considers this amount of weight loss "trivial."
But whether consumers will understand that message from Enova's "Not Stored As Fat" marketing campaign is something that worries nutrition experts and consumer groups.
"This is not a magic bullet that you take to make the fat melt away," said Penny Kris-Etherton, professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University and a member of the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Scientific Committee.
Here's what experts say to consumers who are considering trying Enova:
Proceed cautiously. Since Enova contains the well-known canola and soybean oils, it didn't have to undergo extensive testing to enter the U.S. market. It is being sold under a Food and Drug Administration provision known as GRAS, or "generally recognized as safe" (a designation used for products whose ingredients are already considered harmless.) "I don't recommend it [Enova] to anyone because we don't know enough about it," noted Wahida Karmally, director of Nutrition at Columbia University's Irving Center for Clinical Research in New York.
"For us to be able to recommend it to the American public, we have to make sure that it has no adverse effects and we have to find out what the good effects are." said Karmally, who is helping run an Enova study for ADM Kao.
Don't expect to save calories with Enova. Like other liquid oils, Enova has 120 calories per tablespoon, so it's no caloric bargain. Enova is meant to replace other oils, not add to them. "The bottom line is if people overconsume this oil or any oil, they will be more likely to gain weight," noted ADM's Lane.
Great for baking, not for dipping. Enova has no flavor, so you probably won't relish dipping bread in it the way you might virgin olive oil. But it seems to earn high marks in salad dressings, sauteed food and baked goods. Share Your Tips or ask questions about healthy nutrition and activity when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club online chat, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. today, on washingtonpost.com. Can't join live? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, and subscribe to our free e-newsletter, visit www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub.