Planting a heart healthy message

by Jeff Gelski
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Survey results show increasing awareness of plant sterols, which when incorporated into a food or beverage may allow for a Food and Drug Administration heart health claim. According to the 2009 International Food Information Council’s Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey, 45% of respondents were aware of the benefits that plant sterols have for reducing the risk of heart disease, a figure that was up 15 percentage points from the 2007 survey.

"We’re not surprised by that at all," said Laura Troha, marketing manager for Cognis Nutrition & Health, La Grange, Ill., while pointing to Cognis’ own research.

Among consumers interested in managing their cholesterol, 46% said they were familiar with Heart Choice, Cognis brand of plant sterols, according to an Omnitel survey conducted in January and commissioned by Cognis Nutrition and Health. The 46% marked a 14-point percentage increase from the year before.

Cognis has placed advertisements for Heart Choice in Health magazine and WebMD while also providing a www.heart-choice.com web site for consumers.

Cargill, Minneapolis, has created a web site for its CoroWise brand plant sterols at www.corowise.com and given the ingredient line its own Facebook page.

Promoting the cardiovascular benefits of products with plant sterols in them still might resonate more with consumers. According to the IFIC survey, 48% of respondents listed cardiovascular disease when asked to give their top two or three health concerns.

Recent statistics from The Nielsen Co. also reveal more companies promoting heart health benefits. U.S. sales of products with cholesterol claims reached $833,050,085 for the four weeks ended Aug. 8, 2009, in grocery, drug store and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Bentonville, Ark. The number was down 4% from $868,120,908 for the four weeks ended Aug. 9, 2008.

In contrast, sales of products promoted for plant sterols came in at $4,994,377 for the four-week period, down from $6,086,601 in the previous year’s four-week period.

While some in the food and beverage industry may wonder if the sluggish economy has had a negative effect on functional foods, including those with plant sterols, ingredient suppliers point to the value of plant sterol applications.

It costs 2.5c per serving to add plant sterols, Ms. Troha said.

"That’s very inexpensive," she said.

J.J. Mathieu, in technical services for Archer Daniels Midland Co., Decatur, Ill., added, "At a fraction of a gram per serving, the cost of sterols is not a major factor in the formulation of sterol-containing products. Still, some sterol-containing products are easier to formulate than others. For instance, sterols can be added directly into baked products without any significant change in the formulation."

The F.D.A. heart health claim depends on the amount per serving. The claim states foods or beverages containing at least 400 mg of free plant sterols, when consumed twice a day with meals for a total intake of 800 mg of day as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

When food or beverages contain esterified plant sterols, they must have 650 mg to meet the claim requirements, Ms. Troha said.

Last year Arnold and Brownberry bread varieties with Cognis plant sterols were launched with the claim that eating the bread, while following a healthy diet and exercising, may help lower cholesterol up to 15%. Clinical trial results appearing in peer-reviewed journals have shown eating 2 grams of free plant sterols daily may lower L.D.L. or "bad" cholesterol by up to 15%, Ms. Troha said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., margarines, orange juice and yogurt drinks fortified with plant sterols have been shown to help reduce L.D.L. cholesterol by more than 10%, provided the amount of daily plant sterol intake is at least 2 grams.

Plant sterols provide heart-health benefits because the body absorbs them instead of cholesterol, said Chet Rao, marketing manager for Hormel Foods Specialty Products, Austin, Minn.

Plant sterols may work in a range of food and beverage applications.

"Plant sterols are a very robust ingredient," Ms. Troha said. "They can sustain great variations in heat. They are definitely heat stable. Also there are really no limitations in regard to pH values."

Questions arise when deciding whether to use free plant sterols or esterified sterols.

"We personally believe free phytosterols are the way to go." Dr. Rao, who has a Ph.D. in food science, said of Hormel Foods Specialty Products, which combines omega-3 fatty acids and plant sterols in its Eterna ingredient.

Free plant sterols have a higher efficacy level and less impact on taste, he said. They work well in applications where they may bind onto fats and oils, such as baked foods. Dr. Rao added esterified sterols, although more expensive, offer operational advantages and are easier to mix.

Mr. Mathieu said, "Sterol esters are free sterols that have been esterified with vegetable oil fatty acids in order to increase their solubility in oils and fats."

He said ADM offers both CardioAid plant sterols, a free sterol product in powder form, and CardioAid–S, a plant sterol ester product that has a paste-like consistency and is more soluble in oils.

Cognis also offers both free plant sterols and esterified plant sterols, Ms. Troha said.

Clear beverages present a roadblock for both forms of plant sterols.

"One issue is the fact that plant sterols and sterol esters are insoluble in water and thus cannot be used in clear beverage products," Mr. Mathieu said. "These can be used in milk-type beverages, in orange juices, but not in clear transparent drinks."

Dr. Rao said plant sterols are sticky molecules that need fat to dissolve into. This situation makes plant sterols a good partner for omega-3 fatty acids. The plant sterols also have a stabilizing effect on omega-3 fatty acids, and both ingredients have been shown to act synergistically to lower cholesterol.

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