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Heart-healthier peanuts on way to grocery stores next year

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Two new heart-healthy peanut varieties developed by the Agriculture Department and university researchers are expected to reach grocery shelves next year.

The peanuts contain extraordinarily high levels of oleic acid, a healthful monounsaturated fat. Such fats raise levels of good cholesterol and reduce the risk of clogged arteries, and they lower bad cholesterol that damages arteries.

Hassan Melouk, a scientist for the Agriculture Department laboratory in Stillwater, Okla., said the new peanuts look like any others.

One of the new varieties, the Olin, is a type of Spanish peanut _ a small round nut covered with reddish-brown skin. Spanish peanuts often are used to make candy and peanut butter, as well as salted nuts.

The other, the Tamrun OL 01, is a kind of runner peanut. Runners are mostly used in peanut butter.

Oleic acid appears in most peanuts. A handful, 10 grams, of conventional roasted peanuts can contain 5 grams of fat _ 55 percent of which is oleic acid. Conventional peanuts also contain as much as 20 percent saturated fat _ an artery clogger that can raise a person's risk for heart disease.

The new peanuts contain much more oleic acid. Of the 5 grams of fat in a 10-gram handful, as much as 75 percent of the fat is oleic. They still contain 20 percent saturated fat.

Seeds already are commercially available, and some farmers planted them this year. Officials expect the new peanuts to start showing up in products on grocery shelves in 2004.

The two peanuts were created through plant breeding. To come up with the Olin, Melouk said breeders at Texas A&M University crossed a peanut called the Tamspan 90 with an unnamed high oleic line. For the Tamrun OL 01, they crossed a relative, the Tamrun 96, with the high oleic line. The entire effort took 10 years.

In addition to being healthier for consumers, the new peanuts are resistant to Sclerotinia, a soil fungus that attacks the stems and pegs of the plant, causing them to rot.

The disease is prevalent in Oklahoma and Texas where it attacks runner peanuts. Unlike some diseases that die when cold weather hits, Sclerotinia can survive such conditions and reappear when the next crop is planted.

Until now, farmers have had to rely on fungus-fighting chemicals such as Rovral and fluazinam. Melouk said the new varieties could save farmers in Texas and Oklahoma $10 million a year in pesticide costs.

The new peanuts are the latest development in peanut research by the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service. The agency recently began trying to help the 1.5 million people who are allergic to peanuts by breeding a hypoallergenic variety.

For most consumers, peanuts can be healthy. The Food and Drug Administration now allows companies to tout that a handful a day can help reduce the risk of heart disease because of their polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat.

Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat. Peanuts also contain linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat.

Alice Lichtenstein, a Tufts University nutritionist, said that researchers have tended to believe that the monounsaturated fat was better than polyunsaturated, but attitudes are changing. They now are beginning to think that both are good for the heart, she said.
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