Vegapure® Natural Plant Sterols and Sterol Esters: An Interview with Laura Troha, Cognis Nutrition & Health

About Cognis

FDA's recent no objection letter to the expanded use of plant sterols and sterol esters means that more foods and beverages have GRAS affirmation (Generally Recognized as Safe). Cognis Nutrition & Health continues to be a leader, educator and category builder.

Cognis Nutrition & Health offers one of the industry’s largest portfolios of natural-source, health-enhancing ingredients for a variety of applications including dietary supplements, functional foods and functional beverages. The company is the world’s largest producer of natural plant sterols and sterol esters, marketed to industry under the company’s fast-growing Vegapure® brand. Cognis’ focus on the heart-health category has unveiled intriguing opportunities for new functional food, functional beverage and dietary supplement products.

Cognis Nutrition & Health’s Laura Troha, Marketing Manager, Vegapure® natural plant sterols and sterol esters, was able to spend some time with us discussing the background, the emerging opportunities, and some of the challenges the organization is tackling. Laura’s background includes a 13-year career with Cognis, including experience helping lead the marketing efforts for the company’s complete line of health-enhancing ingredients before focusing on building the Vegapure® brand and making it one of the highest growth products for Cognis Nutrition & Health.

Contact Laura at 708-579-6173 or [email protected]

NPI: What is the background of Cognis in this category?

LT: In simple terms, we have longevity. We’ve been involved in the sector for over 50 years, and in that time have evolved in our role – it has become more complicated, and our role has shifted from merely supplying raw materials to now leveraging our accumulated experience and making it available to our customers. Europe was home to the first food product launched containing Cognis’ plant sterols. It was the culmination of years of development, and Cognis has built a global infrastructure to support the category including technology and manufacturing where we offer security of supply as the leading supplier of phytosterols. We are continuously expanding our applications and technical support for new products and have ingredients for virtually any food, beverage or dietary supplement.

We offer our clients an integrated package based on our proven track record, network of technical experts, regulatory and compliance support, science knowledge and marketing expertise unmatched in the industry.

NPI: There are other suppliers of plant sterols. What differentiates and makes Cognis a leader in this category?

LT: Cognis’ new $25 million esterification facility is a clear demonstration of our commitment to helping our customers bring products to market, making it simpler and more cost effective by providing them with the finest ingredients to choose from. This new facility unveiled last year uses proprietary technologies and guarantees the highest possible standards of quality and safety. Not only does it comply with Cognis’ own demanding Food GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices), it also meets all the criteria of the ISO 22000, which places the highest safety requirements on companies in the food industry.

Cognis also offers unprecedented expertise in the regulatory aspects of doing business from country to country. We have the depth of resources and expertise to help our customers in regions where regulations differ so drastically depending on whether you’re talking about sterols or sterol esters for foods or supplements.

NPI: What products are included in Cognis’ line of Vegapure® phytosterols?

LT: Cognis recently introduced an expanded portfolio of natural plant sterols and sterol ester ingredients for heart health. That line extension has put Cognis in a great position to help customers create new products now that more foods and beverages have GRAS affirmation (Generally Recognized as Safe) following the FDA’s recent issuance of its ‘no objection’ letter.

New to Cognis’ phytosterol family is Vegapure® FS, a free sterol ground powder ideal for tablets and functional foods. To meet increasing regulatory requirements worldwide, Cognis also introduced three new, non-GM (genetically-modified), IP (identity-preserved) sterol and sterol ester products developed for tablets, soft-gels, two-piece hard shells and functional foods. Our seven phytosterols makes it simple to customize products with a natural, safe ingredient clinically proven to lower cholesterol. And, because our complete line of Vegapure® ingredients is kosher and halal-certified, our customers can create heart health products for this fast-growing market.

In addition to offering a broad product portfolio, we have the technical know-how and commitment to our customers to develop products that meet all of their sensory characteristic needs for a variety of food matrices.

NPI: Vegapure® plant sterols and sterol esters are GRAS for which foods and beverages?

LT: Many! The list includes margarine and vegetable oil spreads, salad dressings, nutritional bars, yogurt, beverages, ice-cream, cheese, cream, baked foods, cereals, mayonnaise, pasta, sauces, salty snacks, soups, puddings, yogurt, confections, edible oils, and ground roasted coffee.

NPI: Can you speak a bit about the development and evolution process for Vegapure®?

LT: Research shows that over 50% of American households are managing their cholesterol. That’s a huge opportunity if you have the right product. Cognis recognized the market potential long ago and began developing Vegapure® ingredients. The process has evolved as market demand has grown. Our growth strategies are based on the success of our two core products: Covitol® natural-source vitamin E and Tonalin® CLA. As the long-standing natural vitamin E producer, we have decades of experience to help guide us in developing this ‘sister’ product. And, as the supplier of the #1 selling brand of CLA, we know how to market ingredients so consumers connect with the messages.

NPI: How is Cognis positioning Vegapure® phytosterols in the marketplace?

LT: From a marketing perspective, we are using an umbrella marketing platform for both trade and consumers. The program is intended to resonate across both and it’s built around the concept of “SIMPLE”. Cognis is vigorously marketing Vegapure® to consumers as Heart Choice™ to further drive sales and build the brand.

For the trade, customer success is made ‘Simple’. We ensure this through marketing support, the broad portfolio of products, the science we’ve supported including seven published clinical studies using Cognis’ sterol esters – together proving that Cognis is the best partner. Cognis’ commitment to R&D, consumer insight, and marketing support all contribute to helping our customers earn their share of the $30 million cholesterol treatment market.

On the consumer side, we make things ‘Simple’ through the co-branding opportunities showing that Heart Choice™ phytosterols make heart health a lot easier. The Heart Choice™ website – – helps educate consumers on the cholesterol-lowering benefits of natural plant sterols. It’s an important part of our efforts to raise consumer awareness on the heart health benefits of these powerful ingredients.

The Vitamin Shoppe recently launched “Heart Choice Natural Plant Sterols” using a variety of promotional tools to show it is “the safe, proven, natural way to a healthy heart.” Cognis’ co-branding programs are now expanding into Canada as well as in the direct selling channel.

NPI: Is the market potential growing for the use of sterols in foods, beverages and dietary supplements?

LT: The statistics on heart diseases are sobering with approximately 30% of all global deaths involving cardiovascular issues with cholesterol identified as a major risk factor. Increasingly, consumers want to take control of their own health. These proactive wellness seekers are a major force – the numbers are growing. And especially for those with borderline cholesterol levels, many of whom were affected by the change in guidelines regarding target cholesterol levels. Now, for the first time, these consumers considered at risk, can use sterols to actually move their cholesterol levels out of the borderline category.

Trends research expert Elizabeth Sloan, Ph.D. found that cardiovascular health ranked as the “best opportunity” in functional foods for the 2-5 years by half of the largest 400 multinational food companies surveyed. Natural ingredients followed closely behind with 45% and cholesterol reduction was cited by 42% of respondents.

While word is catching on in the food category, according to recent data from Information Resources, Inc., sales of dietary supplements with sterols and sterol esters also continue to see major increases. For the period ending in February, dollar sales of phytosterols jumped nearly 30 percent compared to last year.

NPI: How do the opportunities differ between functional foods and dietary supplements?

LT: One thing remains true across both the supplement and food markets—consumers’ key concern is product safety. There are very few nutrients that have the acknowledgements that plant sterols have from organizations and institutions like the NIH, FDA, American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program to name a few. So the interest extends across both and is very much about consumer preference. Those seeking a convenient low calorie way to make changes in cholesterol levels have the option to obtain concentrated phytosterols in a supplement. And for those preferring food, we have an approach too. The two markets have different demographics – there is some dovetailing but the key to success and adding value is in really understanding the differences.

NPI: So many issues are currently global, whether we’re talking trade, markets or opportunities. How is Cognis working with customers on a global basis?

LT: Here, it’s important that there’s really a lot of give and take between Cognis Europe and Cognis US. We’ve learned from them with regards to functional foods, while they’re learning from us in dietary supplements and the free sterol products. We also must consider the Asia-Pacific region. We’re also able to support customers there as they deal with regulations that differ by country and by product.

In Europe, Cognis was among the pioneers in the functional food wave. We’re a powerhouse there and are tapping into these resources and this experience for our US market. When FDA announced that the range of allowed applications had been expanded, from margarines and oils to yogurts to soup, to roasted coffee and more, we immediately received numerous inquiries from major food companies. The doors are now opened and we’re currently working on several new and innovative product formats, particularly in vegetable and fruit juice products.

From a marketing standpoint, we understand the different consumers in the various regions around the world. We’ve participated in global consumer research and in the regions themselves, have the expertise to help our customers know how to speak to their consumers. For example, in the EU, it’s actually hard to find consumers who don’t know at least something about sterols. Here in the US, it’s not the same. We’re just beginning to educate consumers by helping our customers create messages that resonate with consumers.

NPI: How would you describe consumer awareness for the health benefits of phytosterols? Can you leverage the growing awareness in Europe?

LT: The research shows that consumers are looking for natural, safe products supported by sound science. Sterols meet these criteria. Unfortunately, though, in the United States, consumer awareness is in single digits. We have work to do with US consumers and presenting the health benefits sterols offer. Our partnerships with customers in co-branding Heart Choice™ programs will help raise awareness.

In parts of the EU, purchases of this type of product are frequently compensated in reimbursement programs, providing an added incentive for people to use the products. In the EU too, lifestyles are different, and, for example, fortified spreads are readily accepted. Here in North America, we have a real opportunity to educate about the potential of functional foods in general with consumer awareness in the US not yet at the level of the EU.

NPI: Is the market growing for non-GM phytosterols?

LT: It is certainly growing and is part of the global business growth. It’s a critical part of the large portfolio Cognis offers, making us a perfect business partner. You’d think the majority of this activity would be EU-based, but as it turns out we’ve also had numerous inquiries from US companies for non-GM product despite the cost premium associated with them. These companies are seeking to position their supplements and foods around a top-quality-type message with the value-add that the product is not genetically modified.

NPI: What market data can you share regarding the profile of consumers managing their cholesterol? How has this data been gathered?

LT: The bottom line is we know the target consumer and make it simple for our customers to reach them. We participated in a 2004 GALLUP survey on cholesterol-lowering actions, and these research findings provided the basis for our initiatives in the past year (Multi-sponsor Survey's 2004 Gallup Study of Cholesterol Lowering Options).

When a sample from the general population was asked to indicate their current cholesterol levels, only 4% said their cholesterol was high, and 12% said they had borderline cholesterol. In addition, 37% of the respondents said that while their cholesterol was not a problem now, they were actively trying to maintain it through healthy lifestyle choices. So, basically 53% of all respondents said they are actively managing their cholesterol levels in some way.

When asked what their primary motivation was to manage their cholesterol, only 10% of respondents said to reduce cholesterol while 62% said they were acting in order to prevent future heart problems. This is especially significant and something we learned – Don’t speak disease. Consumers want proactive wellness messaging. Many products today are clinically presented, “Get rid of…..” We need to change the message to raise the numbers.

In heart health, this means an approach that is positive and offers a take control approach, rather than being disease focused. So, as a matter of fact, the permitted sterol heart health claim is actually secondary. The primary message is that heart health is getting a whole lot simpler.

NPI: What’s the role of other stakeholders and professionals like dieticians and practitioners in this?

LT: Practitioners are not our primary demographic. Our focus is on our customers selling product and our messaging is 100% consumer focused. In the US, there is obviously still work to do in the dietician and practitioner communities. Currently practitioners seek information in order to respond to patient inquiries. Ideally, it needs to be the other way around with practitioners readily providing information to their patients. It’s interesting to note that the effects of statin drugs with sterols are complementary – there’s an additive effect. And even for those with no current problem, there’s the opportunity to protect themselves for the future rather than only being reactive once there’s a problem. For these types of stakeholders, the acknowledgement from NIH, the American Heart Association and others certainly helps.

NPI: Does the science push phytosterols ahead of the other competing ingredients in this category? If so, how?

LT: Yes, it most certainly does, in at least two key areas: safety and efficacy. Sterols rated #1 after we looked at the entire category, including all the cholesterol-targeted ingredients, the levels of clinical support, defined mechanisms of action, and adverse events. And FDA recognized this by allowing the sterol heart health claim that brand marketers have the ability to leverage in their messaging. Regulatory consultants will tell you that few products are qualified to use the cholesterol-reducing claim.

NPI: Do most American get enough sterols in their diets?

LT: Americans definitely do not get enough sterols. Even though sterols are naturally found in vegetables, fruits, oils, legumes, nuts and grains, few of us eat enough of these foods every day. And, as it turns out, the highest concentration levels are often associated with high fat foods, and some of the most health conscious consumers actually omit these foods and so do not get enough. As a result, they miss a significant source of sterols creating a need for supplementation from functional foods or dietary supplements.

NPI: What’s next on the horizon?

LT: We’re going to continue building equity in the Heart Choice brand name like we did for Tonalin® CLA. In broader picture terms, we are continuously looking at new health concepts for our portfolio in addition to eye, heart and body composition. For example, as interest grows in areas like healthy aging and immunity, our customers can expect to see Cognis offer innovative new ingredients and products to help them build their business as we do ours.

About Cognis Nutrition & Health

About Cognis

Cognis Nutrition and Health, a business unit of Cognis Group, offers one of the industry’s largest portfolios of natural-source, health-enhancing ingredients for dietary supplements, functional foods, medical nutrition, pharmaceutical and healthcare products. As a global supplier, Cognis partners with industry leaders to provide science-backed products to meet today’s most pressing consumer health needs. Cognis also manufactures emulsifiers, emulsifier-based compounds, and numerous other specialty products for the food industry worldwide.

Competitve advantages:

  • Largest producer of natural plant sterols and sterol esters
  • Largest portfolio of non-GM natural phytosterols
  • Largest portfolio of natural mixed carotenoids for dietary supplements and functional foods
  • Largest portfolio of natural-source vitamin E products
  • Supplier of Tonalin®, the original brand of CLA and #1 selling brand of CLA

Recent accolades:

  • Award recipient of Frost & Sullivan award for “2005 Product Differentiation Innovation” (for vitamin E)
  • Tonalin® CLA landmark study recognized and selected by the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements to appear in ODS bibliography (one of 25 papers to appear from more than 325 articles nominated for inclusion)
  • Tonalin® CLA named “Health Product of the Year” by several European organizations

About Laura Troha

Laura has been recognized for her efforts in building the Vegapure® brand and making it one of the highest growth products for Cognis Nutrition & Health. Before concentrating on Cognis’ heart health products, she helped lead the marketing efforts for the company’s complete line of health-enhancing ingredients. During Laura’s 13-year career with Cognis, she has gained experience in key aspects of the business, from supply chain management to customer services to marketing. This balance of expertise has helped her create some of Cognis’ most successful programs in partnership with its major customers. She is a familiar face at industry trade events and has delivered a number of talks on marketing phytosterols to target groups interested in lowering their cholesterol. Laura earned a bachelor’s degree in Health Administration from Northern Illinois University, with a focus on business and science.


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