Functional Foods: A Sterols Snapshot

March 30, 2011

In the heart-health category, activity surrounding phytosterols-including health-claims regulations and new product launches-has been high.

In the heart-health category, activity surrounding phytosterols-including health-claims regulations and new product launches-has been high. Phytosterols are naturally present in vegetables, vegetable oils, fruits, legumes, nuts, and grains. Touted for cholesterol lowering, plant sterols have a molecular structure similar to cholesterol, competing with the body’s cholesterol absorption.

Major manufacturers such as Danone and Unilever have been key in promoting the benefits of phytosterols, often with a “proven” claim. Unilever’s Becel Pro.Activ brand, known as Flora in the United Kingdom, includes a new blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, and apricot yogurt containing 1% plant sterol esters. The product is promoted as “scientifically proven.” In France, Danone featured the words scientifically proven on its Danacol product containing plant stanols.

Approved health claims have also helped promote the phytosterol category. The following health claim passed the European Food Safety Authority hurdle: “Low fat fermented milk product (Danacol) enriched with plant sterols/stanols and lowering/reducing blood cholesterol and reduced risk of (coronary) heart disease.”

In the United States, new phytosterol-product launch activity is especially active. Last year, Innova Market Insights tracked 62 new product launches in the United States featuring phytosterol ingredients-up dramatically from the 34 new product launches tracked in 2009.

There was a particularly significant rise in the use of phytosterols in supplements. For example, in the botanical and herbal supplements space, 10 new products were tracked featuring phytosterols, compared to only three in 2009.

Globally, there was a slight rise in the number of new products featuring phytosterols, from 104 in 2009 to 112 last year. Notably, there was a significant decline in the number of new dairy drinks featuring phytosterols, from 28 in 2009 to 16 last year, while the category saw a gain in yogurt launches, from two tracked launches in 2009 to six launches last year.

Nevertheless, dairy drinks still make up the majority of global launches featuring phytosterols and often feature “cholesterol reduction” or “heart health” claims (32% of launches). This is significant, as phytosterol dairy drinks have surged well ahead of the product category that really started the phytosterol foods market-fats and spreads, which now represent only 4.5% of new product launches.

Recent innovations suggest the potential of phytosterols in new product applications beyond dairy and spreads. Corazonas, a snack food brand promoting the benefits of phytosterols, launched Heart Healthy All Natural Oatmeal Squares with Chocolate Chips in the United States, supplying 0.8 g of plant sterols and featuring a “proven to help lower cholesterol” claim. Also new is Archer Farms’ Simply Balanced Orange Mango Banana Juice, launched in the United States, which contains 0.65 g of plant sterol esters per serving “to help support a healthy heart.”

Phytosterols are even emerging in more-indulgent products that claim to be heart healthy, such as Dove Vitalize, a chocolate carrying the claim “with energy-releasing B vitamins, the natural goodness of cocoa flavanols, plus plant sterols to help promote a healthy heart.”

This type of product indicates that combining various ingredients could be the way forward in functional foods. This concept of combining the benefits of ingredients is nothing new in the cholesterol-lowering space, where a high-profile University of Toronto study (Jenkins, 2006) concluded that cholesterol-lowering foods such as soy protein, almonds, plant sterol-enriched margarines, oats, and barley may reduce cholesterol levels more effectively when eaten in combination. So far, new product introductions featuring these types of cholesterol-lowering cocktail combinations have been lacking. This could well be an untapped area in functional foods.