Researchers are frying chips in oil spiked with an ingredient from plants called phytosterols, which can soak up cholesterol without harming taste.
K.C. Hayes, one of the Brandeis University scientists working on the method, acknowledges fried chips, doughnuts and the like may forever remain the stuff of nutritionists' nightmares.
But he's realistic. Most people are unlikely to give up fried snacks entirely, so why not improve the munchies a tad to partly offset the fat and preservatives?
"I'm not trying to advocate eating chips," Hayes told The Associated Press. "They have their place, and let's make them better - that's all."
Consumer reaction has been mixed on the scores of often taste-challenged foods that are lower in fat, carbs or sugar. Food industry analysts believe sterol-enriched snacks may get just as tough a reception from the medical community and from consumers wishing to reduce cholesterol - even if the new treat tastes the same as regular snacks.
"I think you're going to have a real uphill battle on that one," said Bob Goldin, a food industry researcher with Technomic Inc. "Consumers will have a big problem linking fried foods or snack foods with 'better for you.' I think there's so much skepticism... It sounds sort of like oat bran revisited."
Alice Lichtenstein, a professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition, said sterol-enriched, cholesterol-reducing snacks fail to address the larger U.S. public health problem of obesity. But she said the science behind the enriched snacks appears sound, and the cholesterol reduction measured in human testing is in line with benefits seen from other sterol-enriched foods such as some margarines and salad dressings that have been marketed for years.
The Brandeis team's research, recently published in the Journal of Nutrition, described LDL cholesterol reductions averaging 15 percent among 10 people. LDL is the "bad" cholesterol. Participants ate two 1-ounce servings of phytosterol-enriched tortilla chips daily for four weeks.
The researchers reported no changes in the test participants' HDL, or "good" cholesterol, and a 10 percent drop in total cholesterol.
The sterol-enriched chips worked by blocking the body's absorption of LDL as other foods were eaten along with the chips.
Hayes, of Brandeis, said the volunteers couldn't tell the difference between the special chips and those without the additive - and neither could an Associated Press reporter, when he sampled a few.
Phytosterols, which can be extracted from plants such as soybeans, have long been used as a cholesterol-lowering additive in some margarines, and the American Heart Association and National Cholesterol Education Program recommend their use in food to help reduce cholesterol.
The Brandeis researchers developed a method of extending sterols' cholesterol-reducing benefits to oil used for fried processed foods. The sterols are heated and cooled so that they re-crystallize in a form compatible with fried foods.
Warnock Food Products Inc., a Madera, Calif.-based snack food research company, has bought the licensing rights to the Brandeis' process and is reviewing marketing strategies with another California food product developer, Mattson & Co.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing an application for the new use of a sterol additive and considering what health claims can be made on packaging. Warnock hopes sterol-enriched snacks such as tortilla chips will hit the U.S. market by late summer.
Pete Mattson, chairman of Foster City, Calif.-based Mattson & Co., said he expects the chips will be marketed "as a mainstream snack for people who are snack food junkies, and therefore can painlessly get the benefits of plant sterols while enjoying snacks they've always enjoyed."
By Mark Jewell By Mark Jewell