Functional in Finland

By John Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Xylitol, Nutrition

Functional in Finland
John Dunn reports from a country that claims to be the world leader in the manufacture of health-enhancing functional foods

Land of the midnight sun, lingonberries, and Laplanders. Paper mills, pine forests, and pickled herring. Ryebread and reindeer. There are as many clichés about Finland as there are lakes (187,888 of them, actually), or islands (179,584), or Nokia phones (61 models at the last count).

But the home of Sibelius and Santa Claus (Joulupukki in Finnish) is now rewriting some of the clichés we associate with its food industry -- Finland's fourth largest industry after engineering, forestry, and chemicals.

Since the government set out in the 1970s to reduce the high levels of heart disease in the country, Finland has, despite its tiny 5m population, become the world leader in the development of health-enhancing foods. The Silicon Valley of functional foods.

First there was xylitol, a sugar extracted from birch trees. Research by two Finnish professors showed that xylitol helped prevent tooth decay (caries). Today, everybody in Finland knows that xylitol-sweetened chewing gum produced by Leaf, the 'happy candy company', is good for their teeth. Xylitol-based chewing gum has also been shown to reduce ear infection in small children.

And then came Benecol, the anti-cholesterol margarine incorporating plant stanol esters that lower serum cholesterol. Launched in Finland by food company Raisio in 1995, Benecol has captured 40% of the Finnish market for margarines. And Raisio has gone on to develop a wide range of other Benecol-branded cholesterol lowering products, from yoghurts and milk drinks to bread, pasta, snack bars, and chocolate.

And now there is GI Trim from grain company Finn Cereal. Based on oat bran, GI Trim is high in the cholesterol-reducing soluble fibre, beta-glucan. But more importantly, a new study about to be published shows that oat-bran beta-glucan is low on the glycaemic index (GI) and so GI Trim mixed as a drink can actually control the body's blood sugar levels and help slimmers lose weight.

But it has been 30 years since Leaf launched its xylitol chewing gum Jenkki -- pronounced 'Yankee' after Finland's fondness for gum-chewing Americans. Yet the market for xylitol-sweetened confectionery is still pretty much restricted to Finland.

It's the same story with Benecol. Ten years after its launch in Finland in 1995, the rest of the world's markets are only just warming to it. Only now are big boys like Danone and Unilever beginning to muscle in on cholesterol-lowering spreads, yoghurts, and drinks. And Raisio is still struggling to get manufacturers to include Benecol ingredients in their products and to establish the associated health claims.

Also, despite the fact that the Scots have known for centuries about the benefits of eating porridge, it took until 1998 for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to permit a heart health claim for oats. Even now, the UK has only just become the first European country outside Finland to follow suit after the Joint Health Claims Initiative recently granted a generic claim for the heart health benefits of oats.

So why aren't functional foods the clichés for healthy eating that the Finnish food industry hoped for? The problem is the consumer, and European Union (EU) health labelling rules.

Even when naturally occurring cholesterol-lowering plant extracts, caries-fighting sugars, or slimming oat bran, look and taste nice and are backed by lots of science, only a handful of health-conscious consumers will buy them. Even when they are promoted by big brands with big marketing campaigns, most consumers remain unconvinced. Even when they are widely available in supermarkets at sensible prices, carrying clear health claims, functional foods remain a niche market.

Take Raisio, for instance. Last year it went back to its roots as a food, feed, and brewing malt company. It sold off its bigger-earning paper chemicals business to Swiss giant CIBA. And it has now refocused on Raisio Nutrition, its food, feed and malt business; and Raisio Life Sciences, which handles functional food ingredients, ie Benecol.

Yet even after the sale, functional foods still only account for 15% of Raisio's turnover. But the company is investing heavily in R&D and hopes that by 2010 functional foods and other added-value products will account for 50% of its turnover.

"Only 10% of people use these products daily," says Jouko Broman, vice president of sales and marketing at Raisio Life Sciences. "In Europe it is worse, only 7% buy them." Basically, Benecol was too early, he says. The spread was launched in Finland in 1995 to much hype -- "the miracle margarine is here, everyone will be saved". And Raisio licensed Benecol to one big global marketing company, Johnson & Johnson's McNeil consumer products group. "We had block-buster expectations. And we built up a medical image of avoiding death," says Broman.

But in the US Benecol was four times as expensive as a tub of ordinary margarine, says Broman. "When shoppers went to the supermarket they thought we were crazy. The message never got through."

Today, Raisio's functional food strategy is different, says Broman. "It is based on multi-partner thinking. We are an ingredients supplier. We license the Benecol brand. We add value to other companies' brands. And we want to establish a new message: eat well, live well."

Raisio now wants to add Benecol ingredients to olive oil and ready meals. And if European health claim rules ever permit, Benecol could quickly find its way into beer. "In Europe they're always asking when do you put it in beer." But the problem, says Broman, is that beer fails to meet a range of EU criteria for a 'healthy' product, preventing brewers from making a specific Benecol health claim.

It's been a similar problem with the message on oats, says Markku Patajoki, general manager of the oat business unit at Finn Cereal. "They don't understand the health benefits of oats in the food industry in Europe." So, in the face of this indifference, the company has changed its approach. Instead of promoting the cholesterol-lowering qualities of oat bran, it is pinning its hopes on the forthcoming publication of new slimming research. This shows that the high concentration of beta-glucan in its products helps control the body's glycaemic response and the uptake of sugar. And the strategy now is to market oat bran products such as GI Trim as a slimming aid, rather than a heart health product, says Patajoki.

According to the research, GI Trim, which contains 18% beta-glucan, was taken mixed into a drink with glucose. Compared with taking a similar amount of glucose on its own, the GI Trim drink significantly reduced the blood sugar 'high' given by glucose alone.

GI Trim is now on sale in Finland as a meal supplement -- the company can't sell it as a meal replacement, even though it would like to do. "You mix it with your own drink or juice and it keeps hunger away," it says.

Xylitol-sweetened chewing gum may also only be a niche market globally, but chewing gum giant Wrigley knows it can't compete in Finland unless it sells a xylitol-based product, says Marjatta Sandström, communications manager for xylitol products at Leaf.

But now xylitol faces a new lease of life. Earlier this year Leaf was sold to CVC Capital Partners in London, which could be the ideal opportunity for xylitol gum to at last capture the imagination of the UK consumer. A name change could be in order, mind. Well, if it worked for Santa Claus ...FM

Food manufacture's guide to Finland

Population:5.18m

GDP (2001): euro 136bn

Main Industries:

Food is the fourth largest after engineering, forestry, and chemicals with a gross production value of euro 8.8bn

Food industry:

85% of Finnish consumption is produced in Finland

Main sectors:

Meat processing (euro 2.3bn)

Dairy (euro 1.9bn)

Brewing and soft drinks (euro 886m)

Bakery (euro 772m)

Food exports (euro 968m)

Food imports (euro 2.1bn)

Related topics: World News

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