New margarine cuts cholesterol, but price may cause a coronary

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The Independent Online
A REVOLUTIONARY "nutraceutical" food - designed to actively lower the body's cholesterol level and reduce the risk of heart attacks by up to 30 per cent - is to go on sale in Britain next year.

Margarine, yogurt and cream cheese containing a sticky goo made from wood pulp is said by scientists to have the potential to combat the biggest killer in the western world.

The substance, called plant sterol, has been shown to reduce cholesterol in the blood by 10 per cent, enough to cut the incidence of heart attacks by one third. If successful, the product will herald a new era in the development of nutraceuticals, products that bridge the divide between foods and medicines, and could save thousands of lives - at a price.

The health-giving material is manufactured from a waste product of the wood pulp industry known as oil soap. If that sounds unappealing, it is not the way big business sees it. Three of the world's largest companies - Unilever in Britain, the Swiss multinational drugs firm, Novartis, and McNeil Consumer Nutritionals, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, the US health care giant - are gearing up to exploit the product and have already driven the share prices of its manufacturer through the roof.

The companies believe that adding sterols to margarine will turn a tub of yellow grease into a pot of gold. Benecol, the first sterol-based margarine, developed in Finland, sold out the moment it hit the shops, despite costing six times the price of rival brands. Demand was so great that supermarkets had to ration customers to two tubs per person, and the share price of its manufacturer, Raisio, rose more than tenfold in a year.

The reason for the excitement is that Benecol is the first nutraceutical, also known as a "functional food", to be backed by hard scientific evidence. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1995 showed that daily consumption of 25g of the margarine - about three teaspoons - reduced cholesterol in the blood by 10 per cent. The effect is seen within two weeks and about 20 studies since have shown similar results.

Benecol tastes indistinguishable from other margarines but it has one major drawback. When it hits British supermarkets, possibly as early as January, Benecol products will sell at pounds 3.50 for a 250g tub of margarine. A similar tub of an ordinary brand of margarine costs around 50p or 60p. A single pot of yogurt will cost pounds 1. In Finland it has gained four per cent of the margarine market, despite its hefty price.

Manufacturers see a huge potential market for functional foods, but those already launched - yogurts containing gut-friendly bacteria, drinks claimed to boost memory and supplements said to improve sporting performance - have slender scientific backing. A food proved to work like a medicine would be in a different class.

In the UK, 70 per cent of adults have raised cholesterol. Tor Bergman, deputy chief executive of Raisio, said: "People don't want to take pills because in doing so they declare themselves sick. But if for a slightly raised cholesterol level you can take this food then that is a simple lifestyle change. It fits with the Western way of life."

Raisio are now building factories in the US, Chile and France, as well as a second one in Finland, to meet the anticipated global demand. The Unilever product is due in the shops later next year. Novartis have taken an option on a similar plant sterol developed by a Canadian bio-technology company called Forbes Medi-tech. The Swiss multinational has yet to decide whether to produce a food based on it, but its involvement has already driven up the share price of the Vancouver-based company by 50 per cent.

The only cloud on the horizon is that the US Food and Drug Administration is questioning whether Benecol is a food or a dietary supplement, which could delay its launch on to the lucrative US market, planned for next January. Four other European countries are also to get the product next year.

In Helsinki last week, shoppers in Stockmans department store were eagerly loading tubs of Benecol into their shopping trolleys. The product has become one of Finland's most successful inventions and even those who dismissed it as too expensive knew of its reputation.

Ulla Vonkonow, 67, said she and her husband had used it regularly for the past three years. "My cholesterol has fallen, but I have changed my diet very little. I like food, as you can see. I like sugar and chocolate but I shouldn't. Now I and my husband have low cholesterol."

The British Heart Foundation said the growing evidence of Benecol's effects was "very interesting" but warned that there was no simple answer to heart disease.