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Cholesterol Report Sows Wild Run on Oat Bran Products

Times Staff Writer

Baltimore Bagel Co. is selling 800 to 1,000 oat bran bagels a day.

At Jimbo’s . . . Naturally, a health-food store in North Park, the manager says bulk sales of oat bran have undergone a “dramatic, scary” increase.

“Oat bran has flat-out gone crazy here,” said Fred St. Michel.

At Hillcrest Health Foods, sales of oat bran have intensified due solely to ravenous consumer demand.

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What’s going on with oat bran?

In March, a study published in the Western Journal of Medicine cited evidence dating back 25 years that the dietary fiber found in oat bran can dramatically reduce cholesterol.

Since then, owners of health-food stores and restaurants, even managers of supermarkets, say sales of oat bran have gone crazy.

One local merchant joked that the only item selling hotter than oat bran in San Diego County--or anywhere else for that matter--is the Nintendo video game, Super Mario Brothers II, said to be this year’s Cabbage Patch craze.

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Unfortunately, Super Mario Brothers II does nothing to lower cholesterol, unless it keeps you from eating potato chips while you play.

Doctors say getting oat bran into the diet will lower cholesterol but is not a panacea and must not be viewed as a magic bullet.

“There’s nothing magic about it,” said Dr. John Berger, past president of the San Diego County Medical Society, who has a family practice in Hillcrest. “Oat bran does seem to have a mild effect on cholesterol, but it’s not a dramatic effect. It does increase bulk. And some people feel it helps prevent cancer.”

Cholesterol is secreted in the bile and then reabsorbed in the intestinal tract, Berger said. What oat bran seems to do “is interfere with the reabsorption of cholesterol.”

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Berger said that, if a patient recorded a cholesterol count of 250 with a “high-density lipid” under 40--on both counts a troubling reading--he would recommend exercise and keeping the weight down, in addition to modest amounts of alcohol and oat bran.

“But it is not a panacea,” he warned.

Some believers feel differently.

The Lucky Stores outlet on Waring Road in Allied Gardens has found, like many supermarkets, that it can’t stock enough of the stuff to satisfy customers.

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A store manager, who asked not to be quoted by name, said “our warehouse can’t keep up with demand. Sales have increased to the point where it’s kind of ridiculous. Right now, we’re out of stock of the two oat bran items we carry. It’s nuts.”

No, it’s oat bran. Mother’s Oat Bran and Quaker Oat Bran, both of which sell in 16-ounce packages at Lucky and other markets for $1.79. Tuesday night’s season premiere of the yuppie-oriented ABC series “thirtysomething” featured advertisements for the youth-oriented breakfast cereal Cheerios, which also contains oat bran. Now Cheerios is selling out too, the store manager said.

Baltimore Bagel Co., which has six outlets around the county with more to open, started selling whole wheat oat bran bagels in the summer, to gluttonous demand. Rachel Brau, whose husband, Michael Brau, founded the company nine years ago, said sales of oat bran bagels have been wildly successful.

“Nothing short of fabulous,” she said. “Absolutely fabulous.”

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Brau bragged that none of the bagels sold at Baltimore contain cholesterol, and only 1 gram of fat. But oat bran bagels pack an even bigger incentive for the bagel eater worried about cholesterol.

“It’s been shown from studies that I have read that eating an oat bran bagel every day significantly reduces cholesterol levels,” Brau said. “People are very health-conscious these days. I eat the whole wheat oat bran bagel. And I don’t have high cholesterol; I just like the way it tastes.”

At Baltimore Bagel Co., the cost of a whole wheat oat bran bagel is 40 cents. Thirteen--a “baker’s dozen"--sell for $4.80.

Cost is a curious factor in the oat bran craze.

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Stay Away From Steak

Hillcrest Health Foods sells oat bran for $1.99 a pound. Jimbo’s, by comparison, sells it in 1-pound packages for $2.89.

“We pride ourselves on our price,” said Debbie Seale, a clerk with Hillcrest Health Foods on Washington Street. “We’re competitive with anybody in the county.”

Seale, an avowed vegetarian, said consumers make a mistake by thinking that oat bran in and of itself is a cure to skyrocketing cholesterol, a point with which Berger, the physician, fiercely concurred.

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“I see people trying to eat steak and oat bran, too,” Seale said. “Reducing cholesterol requires an all-around approach. High cholesterol comes from eating a lot of animal fat. So you can’t have your steak and your oat bran, too.”

Hillcrest Health Foods sells oat bran in bulk and in half-pound, 1-pound and 2-pound packages. It also comes in wafers, cookies, muffins and cereals.

“It’s been on the market a very long time as a very good-tasting bran,” Seale said. “It’s been found to be an everyday good, soluble fiber for keeping the colon cleansed. But, with the cholesterol factor, sales of this stuff have gone out of sight. And, frankly, we see no end to it. Oat bran is now on the good-health bandwagon, for sure.”


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