Special edition: Market insights

CPL: Deciphering the European cholesterol-lowering market

By Dr Robert Harwood, CPL Business Consultants

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Health claims Food Eicosapentaenoic acid Nutrition Eu

The European cholesterol-lowering market presents many opportunities for food supplements and functional foods despite threats such as statin drugs and a tough new health claims regime, says Dr Robert Harwood, principal consultant at UK-based CPL Business Consultants.

Cholesterol-lowering foods have a simple and effective message: Lower your cholesterol and you will reduce the likelihood of heart disease.

But despite the success of plant sterol and stanol foods such as Raisio’s Benecol and Unilever’s pro.activ in a market worth €500m+ in Europe, there is stiff competition from statin drugs as well as food supplements.

In addition, there is the uncertainty being created by the 2006 nutrition and health claims legislation, with more than 175 cholesterol-related claims due for review by EU scientists.

Also, gaining an accurate picture of the market is difficult as estimates vary greatly.

Many market research reports quote inflated figures based on top-down estimates from government health statistics.

In many analyses the numbers include soy and whole grains as well as common traditional foods like oatmeal, which while justifiable scientifically, will not in any sensible way reflect the accessible market for a new ingredients.

That market will depend on:

  • how well the ingredient works in lowering cholesterol;
  • the strength of scientific backing;
  • which label claims will be permitted;
  • how much it costs per effective daily dose;
  • its formulation versatility

If the food product becomes too expensive, consumers won’t buy it, retailers won’t stock it and manufacturers won’t make it. But ‘too expensive’ can be a moveable feast.

Cholesterol-lowering margarines have succeeded at premiums of 3-4 times the price of conventional margarines, while high-fibre bread rarely obtains any premium at all. A cost-elasticity analysis such as the one we have developed, using a broad range of retail price data, can help predict regional sales by sector

Claims uncertainty

The main cholesterol-lowering ingredients are phytosterols and phytostanols (which together dominate the market), beta-glucans and soy proteins. Sterols and stanols have already been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) but there are 175 other approvals relating to cholesterol and cardiovascular health in the pipeline for Article 13.1 EU nutrition and health claims review.

At least one ingredient has been rejected and many of the claims that the industry thinks are ‘convincing’ are expected to fall by the wayside.

This has introduced a certain amount of market uncertainty, with food companies putting product launches on hold until the health claims are clarified. A batch of about 1000 opinions is expected by the end of September.

Claims submitted under article 13 include omega-3 forms such as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)), beta-glucan (e.g.​ from barley and oats), soy, a number of fibres (e.g​. sugar beet and rye), policosanol and sugar cane extracts, inulin FOS & oligofructose, polyphenols from olive and grapes, green tea catechins, linoleic acids (ALA (alpha linolenic acid) and GLA (gamma linolenic acid)) and almonds.

There are also a large number of claims for hydrocolloids (e.g.​ pectin, guar, konjac and gum Arabic).

Given EFSA’s stated preference for human, clinical trials, it is worth noting many of these studies are in vitro​ or have been carried out in animals; the number translating into positive human clinical trials significantly less.

Now what?

So what does the future hold for cholesterol-lowering ingredients? Some industry insiders believe that getting approval to use sterols and stanols in new food types may be difficult as EFSA may be seeking to limit the categories into which these ingredients can be sold.

But in its recent opinion it said only that the benefit had been demonstrated in margarines, mayonnaise, salad dressings, milk, yoghurts and cheese but less so in other formats.

Products like beta-glucan appear to be making headway and consumer awareness has been increased by successful media campaigns on the benefits of beta-glucan, especially by bakers and breakfast cereal manufacturers.

Future products are likely to come from two main areas – fibres (including hydrocolloids) and plant extracts. A number of plant extracts such as cocoa flavonols, citrus limonoids and flavonols, hydroxytyrosol from olives and proanthocyanidins from carob have been investigated for their cholesterol lowering effects with promising results.

As the market becomes more crowded, product positioning and value propositions will become more important. Companies not only have to negotiate the regulatory hurdles but will require ‘a good story’ in order to convince their customers of the product’s benefits. This will require market due diligence on the part of the ingredient manufacturer and detailed planning and implementation.

There is a lot of justified interest and many ingredients companies have cholesterol-lowering products at the top of their ‘wish list’. Market entry and success will happen for some, but it will need work, care, planning, imagination and perhaps an element of luck!

To see CPL’s view on the EU market, click here.

For more articles in this series, click here.

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