Benecol – a success story for the forestry and pulp industries

BenecolAs the forestry, pulp and paper industries start to find a new place in the options for a sustainable future, it is worth reflecting on one of the success stories. The key ingredient of Benecol comes from pulp mills – the pulping of trees. With full credit to the following web address, here is a full transcript of the Benecol story:

‘Dr. Ingmar Wester, the Finnish chemist was stumped by a technical roadblock. For nearly 6 months, Wester had been looking at a class of molecules called phytosterols at Raisio (then called Raisio Margariini). Phytosterols occur naturally in plants and were known to reduce absorption of cholesterol in the digestive tract. The problem was that there were no suitable methods for including it in foodstuffs because the ingredient crystallized when extracted from its natural source.

While playing with his 18-month-old daughter in 1989, an idea suddenly struck him. Wester raced to his lab to test his theory and made a breakthrough by inventing how to create Plant stanol ester, an evolved version of plant sterols. Ingmar’s innovative process enabled Raisio to produce food-grade, fat-soluble, plant sterols and stanols and to incorporate higher concentrations of plant stanols in foods without compromising the taste and effectiveness.

The company patented the process and the use of plant stanol ester for reducing elevated blood cholesterol levels. It engaged with research partners and aligned the product testing with an ongoing public-health initiative in Finland, called the North Karelia Project, which had been launched two decades earlier in response to the local petition to reduce the exceptionally high coronary heart disease mortality rates in the area. The work was done through healthcare professionals, food manufacturers, and other organizations and by the local people themselves with the bold objective of improving public health, especially through preventative measures. The main emphasis was on changing diets and reducing smoking. High cholesterol was amongst the issues considered as it was already recognized as one of the significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease. A clinical research study on plant stanol ester ingredient developed by Wester was included in this effort.

The study was led by Professor of the University of Helsinki, Tatu Miettinen, MD, who early on had suggested looking at phytosterols to help reduce cholesterol. The double-blind clinical study showed that Plant stanol ester incorporated into margarine, successfully reduced LDL cholesterol by 14%. The data from this 12 month study was published to great acclaim in the New England Journal of Medicine in November 1995.

Just as the study was published, Raisio introduced the first ever commercial phytosterol-based food – Benecol®- margarine. This was a logical route to the market as Raisio already held more than half of Finland’s margarine market.

The research results created a sensation. “It is like an atomic bomb we didn’t mean to invent,” Jukka Mäki, Raisio’s former deputy chief executive told the New York Times in 1996. “We were just looking for a better margarine. We never thought it would be that big.”

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