Softer Is Better In Spreads, Study Says

In a head-to-head comparison of all the things you can smear on a piece of toast or melt in the bottom of a frying pan, doctors have concluded that softer is better.

A study in today's New England Journal of Medicine looked at how harder, processed fats -- such as stick margarine, butter and lard -- affect cholesterol levels when compared with softer products including tub margarine and oil.

The softer products were found to be healthier because the harder ones have more of what are called trans fatty acids, which raise cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

Trans fatty acids are created during hydrogenation, which transforms vegetable oil into a more solid substance so that it will resist spoiling. Usually, foods list "partially hydrogenated" oil on the label.

In the study, 18 women and 18 men over 50 were each fed one of six diets five weeks. Each diet provided 30 percent of calories from fat. Participants were given either soybean oil, semiliquid margarine, soft margarine, shortening, stick margarine or butter. They were eventually fed all six diets, and the researchers measured the effects on their cholesterol levels after each five weeks.

People who consumed soybean oil reduced their levels of LDL cholesterol, which is called bad cholesterol because it can clog arteries, by an average of 12 percent compared with those who ate butter. Those given semiliquid margarine lowered their levels 11 percent. Among those who ate soft margarine, the level dropped 9 percent, and for shortening, the level fell 7 percent. Those who ate stick margarine reduced their LDL cholesterol only 5 percent. Those who ate the softer fats had smaller reductions in HDL cholesterol, which is also known as good cholesterol because it protects against heart disease.

The National Association of Margarine Manufacturers criticized the research, saying that the full-fat stick margarine used in the study is not representative of the products in most supermarkets. Manufacturers have developed products significantly lower in total fat, saturated fat and trans fatty acids, the association noted. NAMM President Richard Cristol said the industry would not oppose mandatory labeling of trans fatty acids.

Studies: Smoking Diseases Resist Inhaled Steroids

The inhaled steroids that enable asthma patients to breathe easier will not do much for people with lung disease from smoking.

Doctors had hypothesized that inhaled steroids might help such people because, like asthma patients, they suffer shortness of breath. However, two studies in today's New England Journal of Medicine found steroids to be of little help.

Smoking causes about 85 percent of all cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Nearly 16 million Americans suffer from the disease, according to the American Lung Association.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 106,000 people died of the illness in 1996.