High cholesterol levels are known to raise the risk of heart disease and associated problems and consumers are increasingly looking at dietary solutions to control this risk.
But plant sterols, which have been shown to help reduce blood cholesterol, do not dissolve well in water as they are fat-soluble. This limits their use to higher fat foods such as margarine, which people on a heart healthy diet tend to avoid.
However Dr Tim Carr and colleagues from the University of Nebraska say that stearic acid, a saturated fat found in beef tallow, has already been shown to lower cholesterol. The researchers have now blended stearic acid with plant sterols to make an anti-cholesterol powder.
The patented powder could be added to many foods, from breakfast cereals and drinks to dairy products and even chocolate.
"We think this powder is going to be much easier to work with and have a much broader application," said Dr Carr.
Initial animal trials suggest that the compound could be more effective than currently available ingredients. A study comparing the novel combination to a commercially available plant sterol product found that it lowered LDL cholesterol in hamsters about 70 per cent, compared with 10 per cent using the commercial sterol ingredient.
The product is said to work in a similar way to commercial plant sterol additives by blocking cholesterol absorption in the small intestine. Typically, the body absorbs 50-60 per cent of cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract, according to Carr.
"With our compound, absorption is in the 3 to 5 per cent range. That's highly effective," he said.
A new hamster study comparing the compound to a commercial statin drug is already underway, with preliminary data indicating that it could be as good or better than the statin drugs, he said.
Statins are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the western world but there is some concern about their potential for liver and muscle damage.
A safer method of controlling cholesterol is through diet, and foods designed to help prevent heart disease are growing at an annual compound rate of 7.6 per cent, according to Datamonitor, predicted to reach sales of £145 million (€212m) in 2007 in the UK alone.
Last year the European phytosterol market was worth $75 million but Frost & Sullivan forecasts annual growth of 15 per cent, boosted by anticipated new product launches.