Setting the Table for Sterols

October 20, 2010

With new Novel Foods approval in Canada, phytosterols are ready to eat up market share.

Since securing Novel Foods status from Health Canada in May, phytosterols are set to take the Canadian food market by storm. Canada’s approval covers the following food categories: margarine and unstandardized spreads, mayonnaise, unstandardized salad dressing, vegetable and fruit juice, and yogurt/yogurt drinks. Sterol-fortified margarine hit the Canadian market in May, and this summer, Parmalat, the Italian dairy- and fruit-food giant, brought Canada’s first phytosterol-containing yogurt to market.
 

In the United States, plant sterols already enjoy some consumer recognition, with Generally Recognized as Safe status as well as an FDA health claim linking phytosterols to cholesterol-lowering. Some sterol-enriched foods are doing very well in the U.S. market, including Corazonas chips made with Archer Daniel Midland’s (Decatur, IL) CardioAid plant sterols. Cargill’s (Minneapolis) Corowise plant sterols are also active in the food market, as are Cognis Nutrition & Health’s (La Grange, IL) plant sterols, marketed as Heart Choice in North America and as Vegapure in other regions.

Canadian awareness of plant sterols’ cardiovascular benefits has really just begun. “Some consumers know a little bit about plant sterols; however, we still need to educate consumers about their significant benefits of lowering cholesterol,” says Rosa Checchia, director of marketing for Parmalat Canada.

A “cholesterol lowering” health claim, also approved by Health Canada in May, may boost awareness. The agency allows one gram of phytosterols per single food serving. Thus, two servings of Parmalat’s Astro BioBest yogurt should be consumed daily to meet the 2-g amount recommended to help lower cholesterol.

What are plant sterols? Molecularly similar to cholesterol, they can help interfere with the small intestine’s absorption of low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol, without interfering with the absorption of high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol. Consumers typically can’t obtain enough plant sterols through regular foods-which is where phytosterol-fortified foods can come in handy. For instance, a person would have to eat approximately 100 lb of fruits and vegetables to obtain the same amount of phytosterols in two servings of Astro BioBest yogurt, says Amanda Schwartz, a registered dietitian.

In addition to promoting heart health, plant sterols may also offer other benefits to food formulators. Besides being quite “durable” and thus suited to a number of food-processing conditions (e.g., high heat in baking), plant sterols can also help replace fat by substituting the same mouth feel and texture, according to Wayne Howard, market development manager for Cognis Nutrition & Health. (BioBest yogurt features Cognis’s Heart Choice plant sterols.)

“When sterol ester is added to a dairy product, it can be a 1:1 replacement for fat,” Howard explains. “Normally when you have a low-fat dairy product, it can be watery and runny. But plant sterols give you the texture and mouth feel of fat-without requiring a higher-fat product.”

As a result, BioBest yogurt “still tastes quite creamy, despite the fact that it’s low in fat-only 1.0% milk fat, or 1.5 g total fat, per 100-g serving-which is quite low,” says Maria Pepe, director of research and development for Parmalat. “People feel like they’re getting a dessert or a treat, without getting all the fat.”

Cholesterol-lowering is as applicable to Canada as it is to the United States. Health Canada says that approximately 50% of the general adult population is considered moderately to highly hypercholesterolemic. For now, new phytosterol food launches are limited to those foods preapproved by the agency. But with companies such as Parmalat rolling out the red carpet for phytosterols, more launches are sure to come.