Plant stanol ester innovation
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
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."