Plant sterols have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol by 10 per cent when consumed in foods on a daily basis and are being seen as a valuable contribution to the diets of millions of people at risk of heart disease.
And while the first plant sterol ingredients offered to food makers were made using vegetable oils, a number of firms making sterols from wood byproducts are now getting marketing approval in the EU, giving the industry a greater choice of non-GM ingredients.
Leading sterol makers have faced difficulties in sourcing non-GM raw material to produce a guaranteed, non-GM ingredient. Both ADM and Cognis said this summer that they could now offer IP-certified sterols but long-term supply will be restricted by declining sources of traditional, non-GM crops.
Canada's Forbes Medi-Tech spotted this opportunity early on and after getting approval for its tall oil sterol in 2004, the first foods containing the ingredient are now available in Europe, including a yoghurt offered by Finland's largest grocery chain Kesko.
This week, the UK's food authority said it had received an application from Cincinnati-based DDO Processing for approval of its tall oil-derived phytosterols, marketed under the Nutraphyl brand, for use as in various food categories.
It is looking for approval on the basis of substantial equivalence to the sterols marketed by Forbes.
The Food Standards Agency also announced this week that it had approved the application from Netherlands-based Prima Pharm for substantial equivalence with the Diminicol phytosterol made by Finland's Teriaka and authorised in 2004.
Prima Pharm gets its phytosterols from the French firm Derives Resiniques et Terpeniques (DRT), which extracts tall oils from pine trees.
Although wood sterols are more expensive than other those derived from vegetable sources like soy, the cost does not appear to be prohibitive.
UK dairy firm Fayrefield Foods will launch a range of different dairy foods containing the Reducol brand sterols in January, at a lower cost than the established Benecol and Pro-Activ brands.
Daniel Harper, commercial director at the firm, told NutraIngredients.com that the main reason for choosing Reducol was its non-GM status.
"As far as retailers in the UK are concerned, there is a clear demand for clean declarations of non-GM ingredients," he said.
"Wood sterols may be more expensive but the brands out there have spent millions on advertising and this has an impact on the market price. We're taking a different approach and want to make these foods more affordable to the masses," he said.
He noted that people at the lower end of the socioeconomic bracket in the UK also tend to be those with the highest risk of heart disease.
But the advantages for wood-derived sterols may not continue into the long-term.
Manuel Canales, vice president and general manager of Arboris, a new US-based wood sterol supplier, believes that wood sterol makers need to find other advantages for the days when GM is no longer an issue.
"The GM issue is not necessarily a permanent one. We are currently seeing interest for non-GM products from both Europe and the US but we see this as a short-term advantage," he said in an interview earlier this year.
Nevertheless, wood sterols will remain attractive for some time to come.
Major soy ingredient supplier Cargill has even chosen to set up partnerships with wood-derived sterol makers in the US so that it can supply European customers with non-GM product.