WASHINGTON — A margarine specially made to reduce cholesterol is headed for American grocery stores next year — and experts say it could open new interest in foods with added healing properties.
Benecol margarine is so popular in Finland, where it was created, that stores can’t keep shelves stocked even at prices six times more than regular margarine.
Scientists say medical studies show it works much like a medicine, preventing the body from absorbing dietary cholesterol and inhibiting the liver’s own production of the heart-clogging fat, thanks to a natural ingredient derived from pine trees.
Now a medical giant is preparing to bring that ingredient, called sitostanol, to Americans next year. Tylenol maker McNeil Consumer Products promises to sell not just margarine, but to create other cholesterol-lowering foods, too. Scientists predict sitostanol could work in anything from salad dressing and mayonnaise to ice cream.
If enough of the 98 million Americans with moderate to high cholesterol eat such designer foods, “what we hope is that … you are going to be able to affect cholesterol levels, to lower them, in a greater number of patients without having to go to medications,” said Dr. Tu Nguyen, cholesterol director at the Mayo Clinic.
Dietitians have long known foods’ medicinal value; basic nutrition is the core of good health, and a doctor’s first prescription often is a diet change. Heart disease? Cut the fat. High blood pressure? Watch the salt. Companies responded by removing some unhealthy ingredients from foods.
Then scientists teased out of nutritious foods some ingredients that make them so healthy. Cereals naturally high in fiber, for example, are aggressively advertised to prevent heart disease and cancer.
But you must eat a lot of those cereals to get a heart benefit beyond that of basic nutrition, said Dr. Nilo Cater of the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center. He’s excited by companies taking the next step — adding biologically active compounds to popular foods to give them an added health benefit.
Benecol margarine will test whether Americans will embrace so-called “nutraceuticals” or “functional foods,” said Michael S. Goodman of the Boston health care consultancy Decision Resources.
So far, he said, they haven’t, citing Campbell’s “Intelligent Quisine,” a multimillion-dollar line of foods scientifically proven to help heart disease and diabetes that was pulled off the market this spring after poor sales.
Benecol “could be the kind of bell ringing, groundbreaking kind of product that will embolden other companies,” he said.
There’s a dispute among nutritionists as to what a “functional food” actually is.
Some contend fruits and vegetables fit the definition because they’re so nutrient-packed. After a respected medical journal reported that cranberry juice wards off yeast infections, sales shot up 20 percent, noted Clare Hasler, director of the University of Illinois’ functional foods program.
But to David Schardt of the consumer advocacy Center for Science in the Public Interest, the first real functional food was calcium-fortified orange juice. The bone-healthy mineral doesn’t occur naturally in orange juice, but adding it helps people at risk of osteoporosis sneak extra calcium onto the menu.
The anti-cholesterol margarine, however, has far higher levels of a medicinal, albeit natural, compound.
How the Food and Drug Administration will react to this unconventional food is unclear. The government regulates the health claims that foods make, but McNeil hasn’t revealed yet how it plans to label or market Benecol.
Plants contain chemicals that naturally lower cholesterol. In the 1950s, people took up to 12 capsules a day of some of those chemicals as medicine. Sitostanol is a more potent version that can be put into foods.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found Finnish consumers who ate three pats of Benecol margarine a day without otherwise changing their diet lowered their cholesterol by 10 percent. Mayo’s Nguyen just finished studying 300 Americans, who routinely eat a less fatty diet than the Finns, to see if they benefit equally. Results are due in September.