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Decades ago, margarine was considered the “Holy Grail” when it came to controlling the health of your heart. Large companies came out with solid margarine and tub margarine versions of their best-selling premium butter, selling them as low-fat, unsaturated fat alternatives for baking, cooking, and as spreads for toast, pancakes, rolls, and more. Unfortunately, subsequently research showed that the hydrogenation process in the making of margarine can make the product unhealthful. When vegetable oil is turned into a solid by the process of hydrogenation, changes occur in its chemical composition. Trans isomers, or trans fatty acids are created – which have been found to lower HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels. Studies have found that the trans fatty acids found in margarine, a partially hydrogenated product, are worse for your heart than the saturated fats found in butter.

Companies have combated the “bad rap” of margarine by creating spreads that are not hydrogenated or ones in which the trans fatty acids have been removed. These new fat-free and low-fat margarines have virtually no trans fatty acids at all. Other companies combine their butter and their margarine products, providing taste with fewer trans fatty acids. Marketers have also discovered the beneficial aspects of margarine-like spreads that lower cholesterol, tapping into the highly-profitable nutraceuticals market.

Benecol, manufactured by the McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit of Johnson & Johnson and developed in Finland in conjunction with Raisio, was the first spread to introduce cholesterol-reducing ingredients: stanol esters made from pine tree extract. Plant stanol esters have been proven at the Mayo Clinic to reduce LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, by 14% with regular use (three servings per day for two weeks). Unilever/Best Foods’ Lipton division’s Take Control margarine substitute came out in the market at the same time as Benecol. Its plant esters are made from soybean oil extract and studies have found that it reduces the body’s ability to absorb cholesterol by 13%.

In 2000, the FDA gave Benecol and other products made with plant stanol esters permission to claim that they lower the risk of heart disease – when used in concert with a diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol.

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