a1 Unilever Health Institute, Unilever Research and Development, PO Box 114, 3130 AC, Vlaardingen, The Netherlands
Saturated and trans-fatty acids raise total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol and are known to increase the risk of CHD, while dietary unsaturated fatty acids play important roles in maintaining cardiovascular health. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet often involves many complex dietary changes. Modifying the composition of foods high in saturated fat, particularly those foods that are consumed daily, can help individuals to meet the nutritional targets for reducing the risk of CHD. In the 1960s the Dutch medical community approached Unilever about the technical feasibility of producing margarine with a high-PUFA and low-saturated fatty acid composition. Margarine is an emulsion of water in liquid oil that is stabilised by a network of fat crystals. In-depth expertise of fat crystallisation processes allowed Unilever scientists to use a minimum of solid fat (saturated fatty acids) to structure a maximum level of PUFA-rich liquid oil, thus developing the first blood-cholesterol-lowering product, Becel. Over the years the composition of this spread has been modified to reflect new scientific findings and recommendations. The present paper will briefly review the developments in fat technology that have made these improvements possible. Unilever produces spreads that are low in total fat and saturated fat, virtually free of trans-fatty acids and with levels of n-3 and n-6 PUFA that are in line with the latest dietary recommendations for the prevention of CHD. Individuals with the metabolic syndrome have a 2–4-fold increased risk of developing CHD; therefore, these spreads could make a contribution to CHD prevention in this group. In addition, for individuals with the metabolic syndrome the spreads could be further modified to address their unique dyslipidaemia, i.e. elevated blood triacylglycerols and low HDL-cholesterol. Research conducted in the LIPGENE study and other dietary intervention studies will deliver the scientific evidence to justify further modifications in the composition of spreads that are healthy for the heart disease risk factors associated with the metabolic syndrome.