Sterols approved by Antipodean authorities

Wellington, New Zealand: Vegetable oil-derived plant sterol esters have been approved for use in margarines by the Food Standards Ministerial Council of Australia and New Zealand, following an eight-month safety study. However, brands of margarine containing sterols will still have to feature a warning that the products are not suitable for babies, younger children, or pregnant and breastfeeding women. Consumers on cholesterol-lowering medication will also be advised to seek medical advice.

Other Australian products containing plant sterol esters, including brands of yoghurt, breakfast bar, mayonnaise, milk, and salad dressing, were officially phased out in mid-June, pending the results of industry research into their safety due later this year. No other vegetable sterol products were available in New Zealand.

The move, which brings the two southern countries into line with European legislation, follows the recommendations of the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA), which had drawn attention to evidence that a high consumption of vegetable sterols can reduce the absorption of beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. ANZFA advised that only margarine spreads, which contain relatively low levels of sterol esters, be permitted, and that even these should be avoided by groups at risk of vitamin deficiency.

John Young, Manager of the Functional Foods Working Group at Leatherhead Food RA believes that while these recent rulings have put the brakes on development of the phytosterol-based heart benefit foods and drinks market in Australia and New Zealand, the effect on the wider heart benefit foods market is likely to be only modest. "The future development of the Australian and indeed global heart benefit foods market is not totally dependant on phytosterols as the cholesterol-lowering agent," he says. "Other ingredients finding increasing application include soya protein, milk peptides, oat beta-glucans and omega-3 fatty acids, to mention but a few."

Vegetable-derived sterol esters are the first food substance to be targeted by Australia and New Zealand's newly-introduced Novel Foods Standard, first introduced in December 1999 although it did not officially come into force until mid-June this year. The code requires any food which does not have a clear history of safe use in the two countries to undergo pre-release safety assessment.

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