Benecol, made in Finland, is one of a new class of products called nutraceuticals, which bridge the divide between drugs and foods, but it is the first to come with solid scientific backing for its claims.
More than 20 studies, including one published in the New England Journal of Medicine, have shown that when eaten daily it can cut cholesterol levels by 10 per cent, enough to reduce the risk of a heart attack by a third.
Benecol, which will also be sold as a cream cheese, is different from low-cholesterol margarines like Flora because it is not just low in cholesterol but is a cholesterol-lowering product, actually removing cholesterol from the gut.
Only one-third of the cholesterol in the gut comes from the diet. The other two-thirds is supplied by the liver into the bile, which drains into the gut and is essential to digestion. Much of this cholesterol is reabsorbed, which is why it is extremely difficult to reduce blood cholesterol levels by diet alone.
However, the new product will be expensive. It is expected to cost around pounds 3.50 for a 250g tub, about six times the price of ordinary margarine. It is made from a waste product of the wood pulp industry known as oil soap and has been on sale in Finland for over three years.
The key ingredient of Benecol is derived from plant sterols - a compound found within all plant cells which is known to inhibit absorption of cholesterol from the gut. Raisio, a small Finnish paper-making company, found a way of altering the sterols into stanols (which are not absorbed by the body but pass straight through the gut, taking the cholesterol with them) and dissolving them in fat to make them palatable.
Theoretically, these stanols could be added to a range of foods - in the way that folic acid is added to cereals, and fluoride to drinking water - to curb heart disease. The huge potential market that this would open up has attracted the attention of some the worlds biggest food companies.
McNeil Consumer Nutritionals, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, the US health care giant, is to market Benecol in Europe and the US. A rival product, called Flora Pro-Activ, has been developed by Unilever in Britain, but the European Commission has blocked its sale, pending further tests, because of widespread public concern about scientific manipulation of novel foods. Benecol escaped the ban because it was already on sale in Finland before the EU regulations came into effect in 1997.
The Swiss-owned multinational drugs firm, Novartis, has taken an option on a similar product developed by a Canadian bio-technology company.
In the UK, 70 per cent of adults have raised levels of cholesterol.When Benecol was launched in Finland, shoppers cleared the shelves of the product despite its price. Demand was so great that supermarkets rationed it to two tubs a person.
However, the Finns have the highest heart disease rates in the world and awareness of the need to cut cholesterol is high. Benecol is unlikely to have a similar impact in Britain and may suffer because of the recent scare over genetically modified foods.
It is targeted at 40 to 50-year-old men and their wives who are concerned about their health but who want to avoid drugs.
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."Reuse content