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Today Finland, Tomorrow the World: Cholesterol-Blocking Margarine a Hit

May 30, 1996

HELSINKI, Finland (AP) _ Health-crazy Finns are scrambling to buy a new, cholesterol-blocking margarine, and it’s giving palpitations to international investors.

Known as Benecol, the spread is selling off Finnish store shelves faster than its maker can churn out the half-pound tubs.

``It’s total chaos when a batch of Benecol comes in,″ said Auli Kanerva, sales manager at a Helsinki supermarket. ``We tried to restrict it to one tub per customer, but they cried bloody murder.″

To make the heart-friendly margarine, manufacturer Raisio Group adds a natural plant alcohol called sitostanol to ordinary margarine. Sitostanol inhibits the absorption of the health-threatening form of cholesterol into the bloodstream.

Raisio mainly gets sitostanol from pine oil, a byproduct of the wood pulp industry that usually is discarded as waste. It takes 33 tons of pine wood to extract just 5.5 pounds of the plant alcohol.

``That’s a lot of raw material,″ said Ingmar Wester, head of research and development at Raisio. ``What is needed are investments and initiatives for producers to collect it.″

Indeed, international investors have been flooding into Raisio, a community 105 miles west of Helsinki.

The price of Raisio shares on the Helsinki stock exchange has increased fivefold since January, as consumers gobbled up the margarine despite a cost that’s 10 times that of ordinary oleo.

``We can’t keep up with the pace,″ said Matti Salminen, chief executive officer of Raisio, a producer of chemicals, animal feed and malts that began making Benecol in November. ``We could produce much more if it weren’t for a raw material shortage.″

The benefits of the plant alcohol have been known since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1989 that Finnish scientists discovered how to make it soluble in fat.

In a one-year test on 153 volunteers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine last year, University of Helsinki researchers found cholesterol counts fell from an average of 235 to 210 on margarine with sitostanol.

Volunteers had no complaints about the taste, and scientists reported no negative side effects.

The researchers picked margarine to test the cholesterol-lowering compound simply because Finns eat a lot of it, researcher Tatu Miettinen said.

``There’s nothing stopping it being used in chocolate, ice cream or even fats for frying,″ he said.

Although it will be at least two years before production starts outside Finland, Salminen said, the company has patented its fat-soluble plant alcohol in the United States and Poland _ where it has a margarine factory _ and has patents pending in other leading industrialized countries.

At $9.60 a pound, the cost may be cheap compared to cholesterol-lowering medication, but not to ordinary margarine.

The price isn’t the problem in Finland. Short supply is.

One woman whose husband demanded the cholesterol-blocking spread resorted to saving an empty tub and filling it with plain margarine, said Kanerva, the supermarket manager.

``Her husband couldn’t tell the difference,″ Kanerva said. ``She’s saving lots on food bills, and he’s happy believing he’s losing all that cholesterol.″

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