Title: Functional foods - fats

Key words: margarine, cholesterol reduction, heart attacks, coronary heart disease, soya bean sterols, low density lipoproteins, carotenoids, free radicals,

Date: April 2001

Category: Materia Medica

Type: Article


Functional foods - fats

Our daily spread? - One of Europe's food giants puts a new spin on healthy eating.

WITHIN a year, millions of Europeans could be spreading their bread with a margarine developed to reduce deaths from heart attacks. The margarine blocks the absorption of cholesterol from the gut, and could become the first "functional food" to break into the mass market.

Functional foods, modified to achieve a specific health benefit, have not yet featured prominently on supermarket shelves ("A plateful of medicine", New Scientist, 2 November 1996, p 12). But the Anglo-Dutch company Unilever hopes to sell the new product in Europe and Canada next year. Approval in the US could follow.

Unilever claims the margarine can reduce blood cholesterol by around 10 per cent. If this were extended to the whole population, it could cut deaths from coronary heart disease by 20 per cent.

To make the margarine, Unilever enriches Flora, its best-known brand, with three oils from soya beans called sterols. These are chemically similar to cholesterol (see Figure), and interfere with the absorption of cholesterol in the gut without being absorbed themselves.


Fats for a healthy heart

A similar product, called Benecol, which contains an oil from pine wood pulp, is already on sale. Its maker, Raisio, is teaming up with a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson to launch the product in the US, Canada and Mexico. But given Unilever's position as the world's leading margarine manufacturer, its product may be better placed to seize the mass market. The backing of a food giant is "crucial to the impact of a functional food", notes Jack Winkler, a food policy analyst based in London.

Unilever tested the new spread against four others, including Benecol and ordinary Flora. Each day, 100 volunteers with normal or slightly elevated blood cholesterol received 30 grams of spread, enough for four slices of bread. "We told them not to change their diet," says Gert Meijer of Unilever's laboratories in Vlaardingen, the Netherlands, who led the trial.

Each volunteer consumed one of the margarines for three-and-a-half weeks, before being switched to another of the spreads for the same period, and so on, until they had each tried four spreads.

The results, published this week in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (vol 52, p 334), show that the sterol-enriched margarine reduced total blood cholesterol by 8.3 per cent compared with ordinary Flora. People eating Flora have cholesterol levels 3 per cent lower than those consuming the same amount of butter-so someone switching from butter could cut their blood cholesterol by more than 10 per cent.

The margarine also reduced levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-the harmful form of cholesterol-by 13 per cent compared with ordinary Flora. Benecol performed similarly, reducing total blood cholesterol by 7.3 per cent and LDL by 12 per cent.

Unilever has submitted its studies on the new margarine to the Dutch Novel Foods Committee. One concern, however, is that Meijer's study shows that the margarine caused a dip of 20 per cent in levels of carotenoids, antioxidants that mop up DNA-damaging free radicals, possibly protecting against cancer. "We're fine-tuning the dose to get the same cholesterol-lowering effect without reducing carotenoid levels by more than 10 per cent," he says.

David Thurnham of the University of Ulster in Coleraine says that carotenoid losses of 10 per cent might be acceptable-given that there is no hard evidence that they do protect against cancer. "It might be a price worth paying," he says.

From New Scientist magazine, vol 158 issue 2132, 02/05/1998, page 4

© Copyright New Scientist, RBI Ltd 2000