Unilever will be first to the UK marketplace with a cholesterol-lowering milk drink, adding the new product to its Flora Pro-Activ range this month.
Cholesterol-lowering milk is already available in Spain and the United Arab Emirates, containing Raisio's Benecol plant sterol esters. Raisio has also launched 'yoghurt drinks' in a number of its markets, including many in Western Europe, such as Belgium, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany.
But the UK is an important market for heart health foods, with nearly two thirds of consumers living with cholesterol levels above the recommended limit, according to the British Heart Foundation.
The British consumer also spends more than all other Europeans apart from Germans on functional foods. In 2002, UK consumers spent £100.7 million on heart health foods, and this is set to rise by around 7.6 per cent annually to £145.1 million by 2007, according to forecast growth by Datamonitor.
Unilever will be hoping this consumer trend lifts sales above the currently declining growth in regular milk consumption across western Europe. The company, which has the biggest share of cholesterol-lowering spread sales in the UK, is set to launch an extensive advertising campaign in April to introduce the new products to the consumer.
Marketing the benefits of plant sterols and similar ingredients has proved one of the biggest barriers to growth, along with gaining regulatory approval for the ingredient. Unilever's campaign could improve consumer awareness of the benefits of plant sterols in the UK, carving out new growth opportunities for other players.
Plant sterols work by blocking the absorption of cholesterol from the gut. Unilever claims that three portions daily of its plant sterol-enriched foods, such as a medium-sized glass of the milk drink or two teaspoons of the spread, have been clinically proven to reduce LDL cholesterol by 10-15 per cent within three weeks.
A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition last year found that milk drinks containing properly solubilised non-esterified plant sterols could significantly inhibit cholesterol absorption.
The team from the Nestlé Research Centre found that the milk fat globule membrane components in milk drinks did not make plant sterols less efficient by enhancing the absorption of cholesterol as hypothesised.
The European phytosterol market grew by 20 per cent during 2003, according to Frost & Sullivan, and is currently worth $75 million. Its use in new foods such as cereal bars, yoghurts and ice cream, is likely to drive growth of the market by around 15 per cent annually to 2010, suggests the market research.