It raises good cholesterol, lowers bad cholesterol and contributes to weight loss.
So what is this miracle substance? An apple.
"I consider apples a magic food," said Bahram H. Arjmandi, Ph.D., director for the Center for Advancing Exercise and Nutrition Research on Aging at Florida State University. "Apples are not my favorite food, but I buy a bag a week and try to eat two per day. I am convinced this is what I should do if I want to remain healthy."
According to Arjmandi, apple pectin -- the white stuff under the skin -- binds to cholesterol in the gut and ferries it out of the body. This is well-known, but what surprised Arjmandi is how much cholesterol a couple of apples can remove from the body.
In one recent study, he divided 160 women between the ages of 45 and 65 into two groups. One group ate 75 grams of dried apple per day -- about 2½ ounces -- while the other ate the same amount of dried prunes. To his amazement, the women who ate apples experienced a 23 percent decrease in LDL "bad" cholesterol, and increased their HDL "good" cholesterol by 3 percent to 4 percent -- a boost difficult to achieve with drugs or exercise.
The women who ate the dried prunes experienced no such effects on their cholesterol, although another study found that women who ate 10 prunes per day, while taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, had higher bone density in their forearms and spine than women who ate apples.
Cholesterol is manufactured in the liver. Statin drugs, such as Lipitor and Crestor, reduce cholesterol very effectively by blocking an enzyme needed to make it. The problem is that statins can be hard on the liver, which is why people who take them must have a blood test periodically to make sure their liver is not becoming irritated and inflamed.
"The liver is one of the largest organs in the body, and it can remain pretty functional if only 50 percent of it stays healthy," said Arjmandi. "You do not see an abnormality in the blood unless you do substantial damage to the liver. Drugs have their place, but if you have to check your liver enzymes, that means the drug is doing something not so good for you, and I don't understand why we would go for drug therapies when eating two apples a day reduces LDL cholesterol so effectively. Eat apples and you not only don't harm your liver, but you substantially benefit your health."
So why aren't apples prescribed for high cholesterol as avidly as statin drugs?
Statins account for about 6.5 percent of all drug sales in the U.S., according to Forbes magazine, and earn drug companies about $26 billion per year.
"You'd have to sell a lot of apples to make that kind of money," Arjmandi said. "If the drugs earn that kind of money, why would a business bother with apple pectin?"