Benecol, which cuts blood cholesterol by 10 per cent in people who eat it daily, was developed in Finland two years ago and sold out the moment it hit the shops, despite costing six times the price of other margarines. Demand was so great that supermarkets had to ration customers to two tubs per person and the share price of its manufacturer, Raisio, doubled overnight.
Raisio has now done a deal with the US company, McNeil Consumer Products, to market the margarine in Europe. The UK launch is expected early in 1999. Unilever, the maker of Flora margarine, has developed a rival product, which will also be launched next year, triggering a new "margarine war" for the lucrative pounds 1 bn-plus global market.
Unlike other low-fat margarines and spreads that contain less saturated fat, Benecol and its imitators actively reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed from the gut which circulates in the blood.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1995 showed that daily consumption of 25g of the margarine, approximately the amount spread on two to three slices of toast, reduced cholesterol in the blood by 10 per cent. About 20 studies since have shown similar results.
Scientists have known for decades that plant sterols - a compound found within all plant cells - inhibit absorption of cholesterol from the gut. The challenge has been to make them palatable - they have an unsavoury taste and texture - and to prevent the liver compensating by producing more cholesterol.
Raisio has overcome these difficulties by producing a sterol derivative called sitostanol, made from a by-product of the wood pulp industry. A spokesman for Raisio said Benecol was "definitely not a medicine". He dismissed concern about the long-term effects of eating plant sterols. "We have had 200,000 people eating it daily in Finland for two years and we haven't seen any evidence of problems."
The Unilever product has been delayed because it is going through the European regulatory process for novel foods. Benecol was exempted because it was already on sale in Finland before the regulations were introduced.
Benecol sells for pounds 3.50 a 250g tub in Finland, six times the price of normal margarine, but this has not deterred shoppers. In Britain, Benecol and its Unilever rival are expected to be priced at a similar premium.
A Unilever spokesman said: "There is a huge untapped niche market. It will be aimed at men in their 40s and 50s who have high cholesterol but which is not high enough to require drugs."
The British Heart Foundation said the research on Benecol was "very interesting" but warned that the daily amount necessary to reduce cholesterol would add to fat intake and "might lead down the road to obesity".Reuse content