Choline Counts: Essential Nutrient for Your Body and Mind

Q. I?veseen food labels that say a food is a “good source of choline.” Whatexactly is choline and should I be concerned about getting enough?

A. Cholineis the newest nutrient to be declared essential to life by the National Academyof Sciences (NAS). While choline is needed for proper functioning of body andmind, the body can make it. But because sometimes it may not make enough, it isessential in our diets.

The food labels you?ve seen are the result of the Foodand Drug Administration recently giving the green light to food companies toboast if their products are “good” (at least 55 milligrams perserving) or “excellent” (at least 110 milligrams per serving) sourcesof choline. The recommended daily intakes set by the NAS are 550 milligrams formen and 425 milligrams for women.

Memory and Heart Benefits.Choline, and compounds that contain choline, such as phosphatidylcholine andacetylcholine, serve vital biological functions, including maintaining thestructure of cell membranes, transmitting nerve impulses, developing memory, andtransporting and metabolizing fat. In fact, eating a choline-deficient diet cancause fatty liver, because choline is needed to make carriers for fat transport.Without them, fat and cholesterol build up in the liver.

Studies in rodents suggest that dietary intake of cholineearly in life can lessen the severity of memory deficits that occur with age.Human studies, however, are lacking. And researchers at the U.S. AgriculturalResearch Service have discovered that folate and choline work together in adelicate balance to rid the body of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to heartdisease. Without enough of the B vitamin folate, the body can become deficientin choline. It’s too soon to know if choline supplements might be a good idea,but a multi is recommended to meet folate needs.

Where to Get It. Thoughthere is little data on the choline content of specific foods, average intake inthe U.S. is estimated at 700 to 1,000 milligrams a day for adults?plenty tomeet needs. But the richest sources are beef, eggs, whole milk and soy’some ofwhich may not be on your “A” list of healthful foods. Another source,lecithin, is commonly added to foods during processing.

Lecithin, about 13% of which is choline, is also availableas a dietary supplement. But take in too much choline and you could experience afishy body odor, sweating, salivation, reduced growth rate, low blood pressureand liver damage. The safe upper limit for choline established by the NAS is3,500 milligrams a day.

Steven Zeisel, M.D., Ph.D., professor of nutrition at theUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is analyzing foods for cholinecontent and expects to have data early next year.

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