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Wal-Mart launches sterol cheese in Europe

Wal-Mart's UK subsidiary, ASDA, is introducing a sterol-fortified cheese it hopes will buck the trend in a category that has delivered distinctly underwhelming results in the past - at least in Europe.

The low-fat cheese, called heartfelt+, is made by the UK's largest independent dairy food producer, Fayrefield. It is fortified with Canadian sterol specialist Forbes Medi-Tech's Reducol ingredient.

"Heartfelt+ is competitively priced, low in fat, great tasting and helps lower cholesterol," said Forbes president and CEO Charles Butt. "We believe the heartfelt+ product launch will help accelerate the adoption of Reducol throughout Europe."

It is a bold move given previous efforts. UK retailer Tesco's own-label branded sterol offering "A Healthier Alternative to Cheese" was pulled from its shelves after a couple of years ago following poor demand. A Benecol-branded, stanol-fortified hard cheese had a similarly short life span in functional foods friendly Finland after notching disappointing sales.

However, the cholesterol-lowering food category has grown by 25 per cent to 30 per cent in the UK, with market researcher TNS valuing it at $300 million in 2005 (about four times the size of the US market). Fayrefield hopes this growing market, reflective of increased public awareness of the health benefits of plant sterols and stanols, will drive consumers to sample the cheese.

While this product comes under Fayrefield's own brand, the dairy has been producing a range of Reducol-fortified products under Tesco's own-label since January. "The key to implementing change is for functional foods to be available that are proven to help lower cholesterol as well as tasting good, at competitive prices," said Fayrefield Foods commercial director Chris Swire. A 200g heartfelt+ pack retails at ?1.98 ($3.72), a premium of about 20 per cent over equivalent non-fortified cheeses.

California-based Lifeline Food Co launched four low-fat hard cheeses fortified with Cargill's CoroWise sterol ingredient in 2004, which the company said were performing well. Benecol has a stanol-imbued cream cheese in Belgium, Ireland, the UK and Finland.

A 2005 food industry poll conducted by Reuters Business Insight predicted cholesterol-lowering foods would be the most profitable health food by 2009.

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