Marketed on their cholesterol-lowering properties, plant sterol ingredients are a popular option for drinks and spread makers. The level of current interest is illustrated by the announcement from Cognis in their half year results last month that plant sterols held up the overall performance of its food ingredients business.
In Europe plant sterols are legally available for use in a wide variety of foods including reduced fat cheese but in New Zealand and Australia they have not so far been allowed in the food product.
Kraft may soon be bringing sterols to low fat cheese in the region after having received a positive recommendation from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to use polytosterol esters derived from tall oil phytosterol esters as a novel food ingredient in reduced fat cheese.
Following the publication of the assessment report, the Kraft application is now in the public consultation phase. Once that is completed, FSANZ will prepare a final approval report in Mid-February, which will be considered by health ministers in Australia and New Zealand before Kraft can gain final permission.
If permission is granted, it will be another regulatory first because no tall oil phytosterol esters have been permitted in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.
In addition to recommending that Kraft receive permission to use the ingredient in low fat cheese, FSANZ endorsed the idea that the company be given the right to become the exclusive user of tall oil phytosterol esters in its Live Active cheese for 15 months.
Reaching its conclusion, FSANZ said tall oil phytosterol esters in reduced fat cheese pose no increased health risk when compared to currently approved plant sterol-fortified foods. Furthermore, the regulator said plant sterols can have a cholesterol lowering effect when added to low fat cheeses.
When putting forward the application in November 2008 Kraft said extending permission would increase the variety of products available to people seeking cholesterol reductions and do so in a way that would enable better measurement of plant sterol intake.
In its assessment report FSANZ provided some support for this argument. It concluded that there are benefits to industry, consumers and Government in terms of enhanced market opportunities and trade, increased product availability and a potential reduction in a health-related risk.
Having said all this FSANZ also admitted that evidence from Europe suggests that there are much fewer people interested in low fat cheeses with plant sterols than there are in other sterol fortified food products. Spreads and drinks have proved the most popular vehicle for plant sterols in Europe.
This article has been amended to reflect the discovery that Kraft has not yet received approval from FSANZ to use plant sterols in reduced fat cheese but has received a positive recommendation in an assessment report.