NEW YORK -- Dairy shelves around the country gained some weight as two manufacturers began rolling out new competing butter alternatives, both of which promise to help consumers lower their cholesterol.
Take Control, made by Unilever subsidiary Lipton Foods, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., made its debut in a Cub Food store in Chicago, hours after meeting regulatory requirements set forth by the Food and Drug Administration.
"Take Control is outselling a typical margarine by a ratio of about four to one," said David Blanchard, vice president of research and development for Lipton. "Clearly, there's been a high level of consumer interest in the product."
That introduction was closely followed by Benecol, made by McNeil Consumer Healthcare, Fort Washington, Pa., which also received FDA approval for U.S. distribution, though the product has been on the market in Finland since 1995.
Both products are formulated upon properties derived from natural plant sources. Benecol uses plant stanol ester, found in corn, wheat and olive oil, among other foods; while Take Control relies on a soybean extract, said a representative of the Institute of Food Technologists, Chicago.
Specifically, the spreads work by blocking the absorption of so-called "bad" LDL cholesterol in the digestive tract, according to the IFT, an industry organization devoted to food science.
Benecol, available in a regular or light spread of 21 servings per package, will retail for a suggested price of $4.99, and will be sold from the dairy case, said McNeil officials.
"We believe in a speed-to-market rollout," said Bob Kondraske, national sales manager for consumer sales of Benecol. "We presold [Benecol] and orchestrated a single national delivery date in order to give every retail trade customer an equal opportunity to be first-to-market."
The extensive marketing campaign will focus on not only consumers, but also health care professionals, using salespeople from McNeil's parent company, Johnson & Johnson. For example, in-store pharmacists will be among those targeted by the campaign, due to their presence in the store and their ability to communicate with customers taking cholesterol-fighting medication.
According to Amy Weiseman, product director of communications for McNeil nutritionals group, this strategy of cross promoting Benecol through in-store pharmacies will include mailings and educational seminars for the pharmacy personnel, and countertop brochures for consumers.
In the dairy aisle itself, Benecol will be promoted "from floor to ceiling," using floor decals, shelf talkers and danglers, said Kondraske.
Benecol's competitor, Take Control, is available in two forms, each carrying a suggested retail price of $3.79 -- a 10-ounce tub and a unit of 16 portion packages. Each per-tablespoon serving contains 1.1 grams of the soybean extract, according to company literature. Lipton's introductory marketing will include a cross-endorsement, on packages and in advertising, by Promise margarine, another "healthy-profile" Lipton-owned brand that has long been established in the dairy case.
"You can use it on toast in the morning, baked potato at lunchtime and vegetables in the evening, and you're going to get this benefit of promoting healthy cholesterol levels," said Blanchard, in promoting the convenience factor of Take Control. "Time and time again, people in consumer groups have [told us] that the easier it is to use this as part of their normal diet, the better."
Representatives of the manufacturers said that people who consume up to three servings a day of their products can expect to see lower cholesterol levels after two weeks, provided the product is part of a larger diet that is low in fat and cholesterol.
Coinciding with the rollout, McNeil released The Benecol Report on Cholesterol in America, a survey on behalf of the company conducted by Yankelovich Partners, Norwalk, Conn. The poll revealed that 43% of those who were worried about their cholesterol said that their inability to eat their favorite foods was one of the "biggest frustrations" they faced in attempting to effectively manage their cholesterol levels.
Overall, it found that almost one-half of those questioned (45%) are worried about their cholesterol, and nearly one-third (31%) stated that they didn't have the time or energy to manage their cholesterol levels.
Officials for both companies said that these types of consumer responses, as indicated by the poll, bode well for the products, since the "buttery" taste of the spreads will enable consumers to easily substitute them for regular butter or margarine on their favorite foods.
For Lipton, the introduction of the spread marks the company's first foray into the realm of the $8 billion "functional-food" category, which is comprised of foods that carry a higher nutritional profile than their regular counterparts.