German group sues Unilever over sterol-cholesterol claims

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Sterol, Unilever

German group sues Unilever over sterol-cholesterol claims
European Union-approved plant sterol cholesterol-lowering foods made by Unilever have been dragged into German courts after a consumer group questioned their safety.

Unilever says it is unconcerned about the challenge to its EU-backed products by German-based food safety and messaging campaigner Foodwatch.

The action follows a recent German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) call for a plant sterol-stanol safety review due to selected research that showed potential cardiovascular problems may be linked to overconsumption of sterol margarines, milks and breads by children and others that did not have raised cholesterol levels.

Despite the uber-strict European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approving their safety and cholesterol-lowering ability among those with raised cholesterol, Foodwatch asserts Unilever Becel pro.activ sterol products are failing to warn consumers about potential side-effects.


As reported in our sister publication, The Grocer, Unilever Germany responded by reiterating the scientifically backing that exists for sterol safety and efficacy. “We really are extremely relaxed about this,” ​a spokesperson said.

In a statement the food giant's German branch said: "Indications to health risks due to the consumption of these products are not proven. The cholesterol-reducing effectiveness of Becel pro.activ has been verified in over 45 studies and the products were authorised according to the stringent criteria of the Novel Food directive of the EU. Even Foodwatch themselves do not deny the cholesterol-reducing effect of plant sterols. Therefore we face a possible lawsuit with ease.”

The court action follows Foodwatch last year campaigning that pro.activ should be classified as a drug and stripped from supermarkets.

Unilever said previously of the BfR position that it was, “based on only one new study that reports no association between sterol consumption and a potential marker of CVD risk. The study only reports an association in one of the sub-analyses.”

The spokesperson said the German agency had disregarded other positive studies while focusing on the Dutch study (Kelly et al) that was published last year in Atherosclerosis.

Plant sterols and stanols are backed by a European Union cholesterol-lowering health claim and are also approved in other jurisdictions such as Norway, Switzerland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Israel, Iceland, Japan and Canada.

“This study has not changed the consensus of scientific opinion that there is no link between plant sterol consumption and CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk, independent of the proven cholesterol lowering effect,”​ the Unilever spokesperson added.

According to Euromonitor, sterol-stanol sales peaked in Germany in 2007 at 901.2 metric tonnes. 852.5t were sold in 2011 and the market analyst predicts steady levels until at least 2015. Global sales in 2011 were 21,670t.

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