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Cholesterol-Lowering Margarine Out

May 6, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ Two margarines that actually cut cholesterol will soon appear on supermarket shelves nationwide at a price tag four times the regular spread.

Market analysts suggest that many health-conscious Americans will be ready to try them anyway.

Take Control, made by Unilever’s Lipton unit began hitting the market last week, and Benecol, by the drug maker Johnson & Johnson, is nearing approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

They’re among the first major foods that are designed to act like drugs.

As a result, the companies plan to market them on two levels _ the traditional way through advertising, and also by convincing doctors to suggest them to patients.

``It will be an easy sell,″ said Roland Rust, a marketing professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. ``It sounds like a winner to me, because there are a lot of people looking for a magic bullet.″

Connie Diekman, a registered dietitian in St. Louis, Mo. and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, stresses the margarines won’t replace a careful diet and exercise. ``But it appears these products are one more way to lower your blood cholesterol level,″ she said.

Take Control sells for about $3.70 for a 10 ounce package. Benecol is expected to sell in the same range, though J&J has yet to release a price.

Al Ries, a marketing consultant with Ries & Ries in Roswell, Ga., suggested the price may limit sales somewhat.

``A margarine that tastes good and has a cholesterol lowering ability is a very good combo and could touch a nerve with high-end folks,″ he said.

The companies say consumers will pay the premium prices because of the growing awareness among Americans to control their cholesterol. More than one in three Americans have moderate to high cholesterol levels, a major risk factor for heart disease.

Lipton says Take Control is more expensive than regular margarine because of the high cost of extracting and processing the product’s main ingredient, a natural soybean extract called plant sterols.

J&J spokesman Ron Schmid said Benecol’s novel health benefits justify the higher price. Benecol’s main ingredient, stanol ester, is derived from a substance found in pine trees.

Both Benecol and Take Control work by blocking the body from absorbing LDL, or bad cholesterol. Benecol will eventually also be available in cream cheese spreads and in salad dressing, J&J said.

Demand for dietary supplements and herbals remedies has soared in the past few years as many Americans have looked for cheaper and safer alternatives to prescription drugs.

Americans are snapping up those supplements even without major scientific studies supporting the bold health claims of the manufacturers. With Benecol and Take Control, the companies already have the supporting scientific evidence.

One study showed regular use of Benecol could reduce cholesterol levels by 14 percent. Take Control was found to cut cholesterol by 7 to 10 percent.

Lipton says its experience selling butter and margarine will give it a boost over J&J which is primarily a medical device and health products company. Lipton makes Promise margarine and ``I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!″

J&J contends its close relationship with doctors will give it an edge in selling them _ and their patients _ on Benecol.

Benecol was created the Raisio Group, a Finnish food and chemicals company, which introduced it in Finland in 1995 and is now partnering with J&J to sell it in Great Britain and the United States.

It was initially so popular that Finland stores could not keep shelves stocked even at prices six times more than regular margarine.

``At first, people went really crazy. It was the curiosity factor,″ said Veli-Pekka Nummelin, managing director of City Market, Finland’s largest supermarket in Turku.

Buying has subsided since then, he said. Benecol now accounts for 10 percent of margarine sales in Finland.

Benecol was launched in Great Britain in March,

Michael Garratt spotted the margarine in a London supermarket last week.

Garratt, 62, who had a heart attack a decade ago, was intrigued, though initially put off by the $4 price. ``Psychologically, it might do me a bit of good,″ he said. Still, he added: ``I’m a bit skeptical of their claims.″

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