Headway in heart health

by Eric Schroeder
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Weight management, reducing the risk of heart disease and other health-related illnesses, and a general desire to eat better are just a few of the reasons consumers are stepping up interest in heart healthy products. In response, many food and beverage companies are altering formulations or developing new products. Additionally, entirely new companies are being formed with the sole purpose of capturing the attention of consumers looking for heart health.

Capturing the attention of consumers is exactly what Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Unilever has been doing since launching the Promise Institute for Heart Health Nutrition back in 2006. Described by Unilever as "a source of timely science-based information on nutrition, diet and heart health," the Promise Institute is a web site (www.promiseinstitute.org) that supports health care professionals with resources and tools that are designed to support ongoing heart health efforts while providing materials that have been prepared in consultation with nutrition scientists and registered dietitians.

But Unilever’s efforts go beyond pamphlets and recipes. The company has put the heart health initiative into action through the introduction of several products.

In 2007, Unilever launched Promise SuperShots for cholesterol and Promise activ Spreads Foods. The products contain at least 0.4 grams per serving of plant sterols, and when eaten twice a day with meals provide a total daily intake of at least 0.8 grams. A serving of Promise SuperShots provides 2 grams of plant sterols, while a serving of Promise activ Spreads provides 1 gram of plant sterols.

This past July, Unilever upped its presence in the heart health market with the introduction of Promise SuperShots for blood pressure. The product is considered a good source of potassium and is low in sodium. According to Unilever, diets containing foods that are good sources of potassium and that are low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.

Unilever also offers Promise Spreads, which contain 8 grams of total fat and 1.5 grams of saturated fat per serving. According to Unilever, the product may be used in the preparation of heart healthy recipes when substituted for butter or margarine.

Hold the peanut oil

Heart health is exactly what Hearts&Minds L.L.C., Chicago, had in mind when it launched Hearts&Minds Peanut Butter with Olive Oil and Omega-3 (EPA/DHA) last May. The food company, which was formed in 2007, claims the product is the first peanut butter to use olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids, and as a result, is the first peanut butter to carry a health claim: "Limited and inconclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about two tablespoons of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day. One serving of this product contains 6 grams of olive oil."

According to Hearts&Minds, the heart healthy olive oil replaces 40% of the peanut oil in the product, and the peanut butter provides a 100 mg serving of omega-3 fatty acids.

Robert Gonzalez, president and one of three founders (Leonard Stark and Akiva Gross) of Hearts&Minds, said the decision to create a company based on heart healthy products made sense.

"Most people would like to eat better," Mr. Gonzalez said. "Our objective was to look at foods people like to eat and make them better."

He said the company’s market research showed peanut butter was a product that ranked high in awareness and desire, yet little had been done in terms of innovation in the category. After overcoming the hurdles with taste, he said the company’s research found peanut butter with olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids had twice the purchase intent of competing products.

At a price point of about $8, Hearts&Minds peanut butter is more expensive than other peanut butter brands that sell for about $4. But Mr. Gonzalez said the product has been well received since its launch last year and is now available in about 100 stores in 23 states and recently secured a presence in its first Whole Foods store.

In light of the recent Salmonella outbreak, Mr. Gonzalez pointed out that Hearts&Minds does not source its peanut paste from the Peanut

Corporation of America, and to date hasn’t seen an impact on its sales.

"We do know that there are people asking questions about peanut butter," he said. "Clearly, some consumers out there might be halting sales. But we haven’t seen an impact — we’re still new and growing."

Going forward, Mr. Gonzalez said the company intends to continue to bring new heart healthy products to market.

"We have several in development, comfort foods that contain fat," he said. "Our challenge is determining how you might make them better by taking out the fat and adding omega-3 fatty acids.

Healthier pizza, please

Nearly 30 years after it was founded in Sidney, Ohio, under the name Gilardi Pizza Co., MaMa Rosa’s threw its hat in the heart health ring with the debut last year of a line of health-oriented frozen pizzas. Marketed under the MaMa Rosa’s Lean Lifestyles brand, the pizzas are certified by the American Heart Association, providing consumers with a heart-check logo that allows for quick identification of the heart healthy product.

"The number of health-oriented and fitness-oriented people continue to grow in our society," said Bob Stevens, vice-president of sales for MaMa Rosa’s. "Pizza is a tremendously popular meal/snack item that many of these consumers cannot or do not enjoy as often as they would like. Lean Lifestyle offers those consumers a product line that they can enjoy and still meet heart-healthy guidelines regarding fat, saturated fat, sodium and fiber."

Initial response to the products has been strong, the company said, with first-year sales expected to top $5 million. The pizzas are available in four varieties: cheese, turkey pepperoni, pepperoni-style and fire roasted veggie, and come in two sizes: large and two-pack minis. In addition, the company has a line of Lean Lifestyle flatbread pizzas in development that are expected to be launched later this year. According to the company’s web site, the flatbread line will be available in margherita, four cheese, fire roasted veggie and barbeque chicken.

Staking a claim to heart health

CHICAGO — Educating consumers on the different benefits of a product many times is accomplished through claims on packaging. And as the number of consumers interested in health and wellness has grown, so to has the number of health claims.

According to a recent study from Mintel International’s Global New Product Database, the most frequently featured claim on new foods and beverages during 2008 was the use of the term "natural." "Natural" could include all-natural, no additives/preservatives, organic and whole grain.

Mintel said 33% of new product launches carried a "natural" claim in 2008, up 16% from 2007.

Heart health claims, while accounting for far fewer new U.S. product launches under the "functional" claims umbrella than "natural," are nonetheless making their mark. Despite appearing on only 4% of new U.S. product launches in 2008, "functional" claims grew 81% between 2007 and 2008, trailing only "beauty enhancing" and "ethical and environmental" in terms of year-over-year growth at 378% and 148%, respectively.

Within the "functional" category, "cardiovascular" claims accounted for 18% of new U.S. food and beverage launches in 2008, according to Mintel. This compared with 19% of launches in 2007. The most popular claim within the "functional" category during 2008 was "weight control," which accounted for 24%, followed by "other functional" at 21%.

A.H.A. advisory recommends omega-6 fatty acids as part of a heart-healthy diet

DALLAS — A new finding from the American Heart Association suggests consuming 5% to 10% of calories from omega-6 fatty acids as part of a heart-healthy eating plan. The findings, published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, identify vegetable oils, nuts and seeds as good sources of omega-6 fatty acids.

The A.H.A. said recommended daily servings of omega-6 depend on physical activity level, age and gender, but range from 12 to 22 grams per day. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in heart and brain function and in normal growth and development.

"Of course, as with any news about a single nutrient, it’s important to remember to focus on an overall healthy dietary pattern — one nutrient or one type of food isn’t a cure-all," said William Harris, Ph.D., lead author of the advisory. "Our goal was simply to let Americans know that foods containing omega-6 fatty acids can be part of a healthy diet, and can even help improve your cardiovascular risk profile."

Linoleic acid (LA) is the main omega-6 fatty acid in foods, accounting for 85% to 90% of the dietary omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Addressing the debate on whether omega-6 fatty acids may promote inflammation, thus increasing cardiovascular risk, Mr. Harris said, "That idea is based more on assumptions and extrapolations than on hard data." Mr. Harris is a research professor for the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota and director of the Metabolism and Nutrition Research Center at Sanford Research/USD.

He said the linking of omega-6 intake to inflammation stems from the fact that arachidonic acid (AA), which may be formed from LA, is involved in the early stages of inflammation. The study showed that AA and LA also give rise to anti-inflammatory molecules.

For example, in the cells that form the lining of blood vessels, omega-6 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, suppressing the production of adhesion molecules, chemokines and interleukins — all of which are key mediators of the atherosclerotic process.

"Thus, it is incorrect to view the omega-6 fatty acids as ‘pro-inflammatory,’" Mr. Harris explained. "Eating less LA will not lower tissue levels of AA (the usual rationale for reducing LA intakes) because the body tightly regulates the synthesis of AA from LA."

The A.H.A. said that observational studies showed that people who ate the most omega-6 fatty acids usually had the least heart disease. Other studies examined blood levels of omega-6 in heart patients compared with healthy people and found that patients with heart disease had lower levels of omega-6 in their blood.

In controlled trials in which researchers randomly assigned people to consume diets containing high versus low levels of omega-6 and then recorded the number of heart attacks over several years, those assigned to the higher omega-6 diets had less heart disease, the study showed.

"When saturated fat in the diet is replaced by omega-6 PUFA, the blood cholesterol levels go down," Mr. Harris said. "This may be part of the reason why higher omega-6 diets are heart-healthy."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, February 3, 2009, starting on Page 27. Click
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