Plant sterols have largely been used in premium spreads and dairy foods in Europe to date, but according recent communication from the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) some supplements containing free plant sterols were available in the UK prior to January 1997, which means that they are not considered a 'novel food' under European legislation.
As a result of this, Cognis has said it is planning to build the sterol supplement market in Europe with its Vegapure FTE free plant sterols. It has already developed a chewable tablet form with binders and additives that are said to ensure the active sterols are broken down and dispersed in the intestinal system for optimal LDL 'bad' cholesterol-lowering effect.
In the US, where the supplements market is more developed than the functional foods market, plant sterols supplements are already successful.
Earlier this year Ferrosan introduced Benecol-branded supplements using Raisio's plant stanols in Finland.
The second new category opening up is rye bread, traditionally eaten in North Eastern European countries like Scandinavia, Poland, Germany and Austria but increasingly in demand in other parts of Europe where interest in wholegrain is growing.
Earlier this year the EC Commission authorised the addition of plant sterols to rye bread under the novel foods regulation. Rye bread would appear to be an excellent vehicle for cholesterol-lowering ingredients, since the sterols build on the host food's already healthy profile.
Cognis' entire Vegapure range - comprising free sterols, sterol esters and spray dried sterols - is suitable for use in rye breads, rolls, and rye-based crisp breads, says the company, which has developed recipes using an optimum amount of sterols without affecting the end product's taste or texture.
Cognis was believed to have had a 50 per cent share of the European plant sterols market in 2003, but analyst Frost and Sullivan now judges that share to have fallen due to the advent of US sources to Europe from players like ADM and Forbes Medi-Tech.
Although Frost was not able to give current market shares, private-equity owned Cognis is still ranked as one of the top three players in Europe, alongside ADM and Raisio. (Raisio's plant stanols are included with plant sterols for the purposes of market analysis.)
According to Frost and Sullivan, plant sterol revenues in Europe were US$184.6m in 2005 (c €144m at current exchange rates) and are expected to sour to $395.2m (€309m) in 2012.
Key drivers to this growth are thought to be increased consumer interest in lowering cholesterol; ageing populations; and increased awareness of cholesterol amongst younger people.
Moreover health care professionals and consumers are increasingly keen to tackle cholesterol levels through dietary approaches, rather than resorting to drugs like statins, which may have serious side effects, unless absolutely necessary.
Cognis has been putting the infrastructure in place to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this market growth; in July 2005 it opened a €20 million facility for increased production of its esterified plant sterols and CLA in Illertissen.
Dr Franz Timmermann, global product line manager for Vegapure, said: "With 50 to 60 per cent of Europeans still not achieving their appropriate cholesterol levels, there are clearly huge growth opportunities in both food and supplement sectors."