The bakery sector has lagged behind others like dairy and beverages in terms of its functional food offering, largely owing to its fragmented structure and role in providing traditional, often low-priced diet staples.
But some in the bread industry suggest that they have also been held back by technical issues concerning product formulations. Unlike dairy products, flavours cannot be readily added to bread to mask new ingredients, while removing salt, sugar and fat significantly changes the structure of the food.
However Belgian bakery ingredients supplier Puratos has been working to expand healthy options for bread manufacturers, joining up with Swedish oat ingredients firm CreaNutrition to develop the formulation know-how required to make a cholesterol-lowering bread.
Displaying an oat fibre-containing, white bread at Health Ingredients Europe last week, it claims that this kind of product could be on the market in the next six months.
While there are a number of dairy products and drinks on the market claiming to help lower cholesterol, relatively few breads are marketed with the same aim.
One of the early adopters is leading UK bread maker Allied Bakeries, which earlier this year introduced a soy-enriched bread, said to lower cholesterol and improve heart health. But the company remains one of the few bakers to tackle this important heart disease risk factor.
Dirk Decoene, group industrial accounts director at Puratos, said: "The formulation of cholesterol reduction today only exists in the dairy sector. We want to bring it together with the healthy image of bread."
"We looked at the problem of cholesterol reduction and screened a range of ingredients available. This [CreaNutrition's oat ingredients] was the best choice - the others either weren't cost effective or they changed the bread formulation considerably," he told NutraIngredients.com.
Puratos had to resolve technical issues raised when adding oat fibres to bread, such as changes to the water absorption and gas retention that alter the structure of the bread.
He added that the first players to use such a formulation will be faced with a significant marketing challenge in a sector not used to numerous new product launches.
Nor will these companies get away with the mark-up on price seen on cholesterol-lowering margarines.
"Bread could never be three times the price of a regular product as in the case of sterol margarines," he said.
But firms present on the US and UK markets will be helped by the presence of health claims. The FDA approved a health claim for the cholesterol-lowering properties of oats some years ago, and this has recently been followed by the UK's voluntary claims body, the Joint Health Claims Initiative.
There is also increasing awareness of the risk of high cholesterol. New products containing plant sterols are set to increase consumer knowledge of a dietary approach to reducing these risks.
Oats also have an advantage over many sterol-containing products as they can be labelled as GM-free. They also contain a number of other nutrients including antioxidants and fatty acids.