Medicine; Lightening the carbo load; Tests show supplements can block up to 66% of the starch in a meal. But nutrition experts say they're not a cure-all.

Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Jun 16, 2003; Jane E. Allen; (Copyright The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 2003. Allrights reserved.)

A wave of new supplements promise to allow people on low- carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins program to satisfy their cravings for potatoes and pasta without feeling guilty.

Dozens of so-called "starch neutralizers" and "starch blockers," with such names as Carbo Killer, Carbo Grabbers, promise to ease the caloric burden -- and dietary regret -- of a favorite sandwich or meal. The concept of a carbohydrate blocker isn't new. For decades, products have promised to let consumers eat starchy foods without gaining weight. Some crude extracts from beans proved so ineffective that the Food and Drug Administration suspended their sale for weight loss in the early 1980s.

Most of the new products, however, use a refined, more potent extract of the white kidney bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). (You couldn't eat enough beans to get the effect the extract provides.) The extract, called Phase 2 Starch Neutralizer. Small human studies have indicated that the extract can neutralize as much as 66% of the starch consumed in a meal. Consisting of a protein component, the extract binds to an enzyme called alpha amylase, preventing it from breaking down starch into sugar. As a result, most of the starch passes undigested through the intestines as indigestible fiber does, and dieters don't pay the full caloric price. "This has glimmerings of great potential as far as an aid in helping people lose weight," said Dr. Jana Klauer, a research fellow at the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center.
 
Although scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and elsewhere have spent years investigating the potential of starch blockers to help control blood sugar, the most recent scientific report to address their use in weight loss came from an unpublished preliminary study conducted at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. According to results released in January, 50 obese patients under age 50 were randomly given either the supplement or dummy pills. Only 29 of them completed the eight-week study, said lead investigator Dr. Jay Udani, Northridge Hospital's director of integrative medicine. Those taking the starch blocker with meals dropped an average of a half-pound a week, compared with 0.21 pounds in the placebo group, Udani said. Although those results, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, "did not reach statistical significance," he said, they laid the groundwork for two larger studies underway elsewhere.

The FDA has been silent about the newest starch blockers. No new research on effectiveness or side effects has been brought to the agency's attention, said a spokeswoman who declined to be identified, citing agency policy.

Widely available through the Internet and health food stores, the products are getting a boost from the recent publication of "The Starch Blocker Diet," by Steven L. Rosenblatt, a Los Angeles doctor who combines alternative and traditional medicine. He doesn't pretend that the supplements are the answer to obesity. "It's not a magic pill. The weight doesn't fall to the ground," Rosenblatt said. He recommends incorporating the pills into a sensible diet and exercise plan that includes the important nutrients in fruits and vegetables, whose carbohydrate content has made them largely an Atkins no-no. Taking a starch-blocking supplement, Rosenblatt said, "is a way to make Atkins doable."

It worked for Karen Siniscalco, 43, of Playa del Rey. In a lifelong weight battle, her only successes came when she restricted carbohydrates. "But how long can you eat straight protein and a handful of salad? I would drop 25 or 30 pounds and then wouldn't be able to go on anymore." Three months and 25 pounds ago, she began taking Sierra Slim, a product developed by Rosenblatt that combines the bean extract with stomach-calming ginger and peppermint. "As soon as I started taking it, I started losing one to two pounds a week," said Siniscalco, who still exercises and watches what she eats. "The difference was I could eat whatever vegetables I want, any fruit I want. I can go to a Mexican restaurant and have a tostada, with the beans and a little fried tortilla ... and not put on five pounds."

Starch blockers don't prevent the body from absorbing all the calories from carbohydrates. Some starch still gets converted to sugar, which eliminates some fatigue and irritability associated with low-carbo diets, Rosenblatt said. In addition, said Janine Higgins, a nutritional biochemistry researcher with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, the body salvages additional calories when the undigested starch comes in contact with bacteria in the large intestine and is converted into fatty acids. The Carbo Killers supplement, like other starch blockers, is made from a refined extract of white kidney beans.; PHOTOGRAPHER: Eric Boyd Los Angeles Times