US sterol foods market growing but slowly

Plant sterols expanded into new food formats in 2006, according to Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ). The cholesterol-lowering ingredients first appeared in spreads, launched in the US in 1999 in the Benecol brand, followed by Unilever's Take Control.

After a gap, new food formats with sterols were introduced in 2004-05, including orange juice (Minute Maid Heart Wise) and dairy alternatives (Rice Dream) with Cargill's CoroWise plant sterols. In 2005, General Mills launched Nature Valley Healthy Heart Granola Bars and Yoplait Yogurt with CoroWise.

With the introduction of these new formats, the market appears to have gained fresh momentum. After hovering in the $50-55 million range in 2001-03, ACNielsen pegged the total market for products with plant sterol claims sold through FDM channels at $66 million in 2004 and $93 million for the year ended August 2005 — up 28 per cent and 41 per cent, respectively.

The cholesterol-lowering sterols category, whether in supplements or foods, faces the challenge of effective and widely prescribed statin drugs, which patients perceive can take care of their problem without having to make dietary adjustments. "Doctors love Lipitor and statins in general; I've heard physicians say it should be added to the drinking water," said Anthony Almada, president of California-based food industry consultancy IMAGINutrition.

Steve Snyder, vice president of sales and marketing at Cargill Health & Food Technologies said: "Of course, statins are a very potent?and effective means to treat high or very high cholesterol, but most?consumer work?we have done says that consumers?would prefer not to have medicine or pills as a solution to high cholesterol."


Sterols in tablet or capsule form remain a small market — deservedly so in Almada's view. "All data on sterols and stanols are in food products. No one has shown that they alone actually work in tablet or capsule form without adding other agents."

Five years ago the FDA authorised an unqualified A-rated health claim for plant sterols and stanol esters and prevention of heart disease. And four years ago, the National Institutes of Health's expert panel recommended people with high LDL cholesterol consume 2g per day of sterols, along with eating more soluble fibre, cutting saturated fat and increasing exercise.

Despite these endorsements, the estimated 100 million Americans with high cholesterol are not taking sterols religiously. Sterol supplements have not even broken $5 million in annual sales through food, drug and mass channels (FDM — excluding Wal-Mart), according to Information Resources Inc (IRI) data.

On the functional foods side, Cargill launched its CoroWise ingredient into Heart Wise orange juice by Minute Maid (Coca-Cola), and that product achieved sales of $21.5 million in 2004 in the channels IRI tracks. However, the original sterol functional foods, Benecol (McNeil Consumer Healthcare) and Take Control (Unilever) margarine, saw sales drop to approximately $20 million apiece last year, after reaching peaks of $30 million and $25 million, respectively, according to New Nutrition Business.

Cargill has more recently co-branded launches of other CoroWise-fortified heart-healthy products: General Mills' Nature Valley Granola Bars and Yoplait Yogurt, Hain Celestial's Rice Dream, and Lifeline Food Co's Lifetime Low-Fat Cheese.

Sales data on these products were not available, but it seems clear that sterols are not yet living up to their potential in the US. Suppliers of sterol ingredients interviewed by NBJ suggested that while the market for sterols is going strong in Europe, Australia and elsewhere, in the US it is suffering from an acute shortage of consumer education and a lack of awareness in the medical community.

"The European market was really the starting point for the tremendous opportunities for phytosterols," said Laura Troha, Cognis Nutrition and Health's marketing manager for sterols. "The US market is one of the last major markets to get on this wave."

"At the raw-material level, the US is only 15 per cent of the global market," said Cognis global business director for phytosterols Steve Frandsen. "Most consumers in the US are not aware of sterols or sterol esters, whereas in Europe and Australia, they know what a sterol and sterol ester is, and they're actively buying them for the cholesterol-reducing benefits. … If you ask US consumers how to reduce cholesterol, most would tell you to take a statin drug. A typical European would tell you go take a margarine with sterols."

Snyder agreed more education is needed. "More needs to be done through the medical agencies and public forums to teach people the real benefits of sterols and stanols."

Cargill is actively conducting marketing and brand programmes to drive the benefits of sterols to consumers, he added.

A longer version of this story appeared in NBJ's Raw Material and Ingredient Supply Report 2006.

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