Soy's ability to lower cholesterol levels is well documented in scientific literature. Health claims stating as much have been approved in a number of countries, including the U.S., UK and Japan.
So it was something of a shock when, in August last year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a negative opinion on an Article 14 disease risk reduction health claim put forward for evaluation under the European Union's Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation.
Submitted by a group of three trade bodies, the dossier requested approval for the claim that: "Soy protein has been shown to lower/reduce blood cholesterol; blood cholesterol lowering may reduce the risk of (coronary) heart disease."
Soy producers had hoped a positive opinion, and subsequent European Commission ratification, would have put soy on a similar footing to plant sterols and stanols, which are already subject to approved claims to lower cholesterol levels.
But EFSA threw the dossier out, arguing that the studies submitted did not demonstrate conclusively that soy protein, rather than other constituents in the various products tested, was the cause of any reduced cholesterol levels that occurred. For now, it leaves the soy industry in limbo in the cholesterol space.
It's against this turbulent backdrop that Alpro, one of Europe's largest suppliers of soy-based food and beverage products, has launched an intriguing new proposition. Alpro Soya Plus is a standard soy milk drink, but with a significant twist – it contains plant sterols.
Marketed as a cholesterol-lowering drink, it bears all the hallmarks of a direct response to EFSA's negative opinion on soy protein. But Alpro said this is absolutely not the case, insisting that it is a coincidence that it has begun to arrive on shelves just as the soy industry is facing a health claims induced crisis. "Plus has been in the pipeline for some time and is not a reaction to the EFSA decision," said John Allaway, Alpro's commercial director for its UK business.
Instead, he said the rationale behind the product concept has always been to give consumers a double-hit of cholesterol-lowering power. "We believe there is an added benefit and at some point in the future, once we've managed to submit our studies [to EFSA], we'll be able to make claims on the combined effect," he explains.
Alpro will be getting in touch with health professionals in a bid to persuade them to recommend Alpro Soya Plus to patients with raised cholesterol.
"We have a team who work very closely with healthcare professionals," said Allaway. "We'll be doing a large campaign letting them know about this product, providing them with material they can use with patients."