A new Swedish start-up has developed a brewing process that produces a beer with cholesterol-lowering properties.
The patented process uses oats rather than barley and through special enzyme technology results in a product rich in beta-glucans, fibres shown in research to have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels.
The company, Aventure, says it is the first in a range of healthy beers, with further ideas in the pipeline.
"The normal beer brewing procedure takes away the good stuff from cereals," explained project leader Arne Berge .
"Oats are widely used in brewing but the healthy fibres are normally destroyed. We had to tailor-make a process to protect these."
The small company, made up of researchers and part-owned by Lund University and a business development agency, is looking for partners for the scale-up process. It will also require marketing partners with significant know-how to bring the controversial product to market.
Established brewers have already fallen foul of advertising regulators for making reference to the health benefits of their products, despite some evidence to support the message.
Earlier this year Coors received a complaint for a leaflet distributed in a trade magazine, which said that beer drunk in moderation could 'slow down the deposition of fat on artery walls'. It argued that research had found that a moderate amount of alcohol in the blood improved cholesterol levels.
Furthermore, a draft European regulation on health claims issued by the Commission in 2003 proposed that no alcoholic beverage should make health claims. The regulation is expected to come under discussion again in coming months.
Pierre Olivier Bergeron, in charge of beer and society issues at the Brewers of Europe, noted: "The company will have to be extremely cautious about the way it communicates its efforts to consumers. As a matter of principle, our position is that health claims should only be made when generic and not used in commercial advertising."
The trade association has however produced a booklet summarizing the health benefits of beer when consumed in moderation, and says that it does not support a blanket ban on all claims for the drink.
Berge acknowledges that the marketing issue will be key to the product's success. "We have to be very serious about this - we are claiming health benefits in a product that is not normally associated with health. We need to find partners who know their market and who have the guts to support the product."
However he believes that in most markets, "it probably wouldn't be difficult to sell a low-alcohol beer and claim that it is healthy. It is very easy to produce beer that has more than 0.75g beta-glucans per serving, or the limit imposed by the FDA's health claim".
The first health claim approved by the US Food and Drug Administration concerned the benefit of oat beta-glucans on heart disease risk.
Next week Lund university will launch a pilot trial on 50 people consuming two 33 cl of a low-alcohol variation of the cholesterol-lowering beer daily. Results are expected in February.
"We have tried to introduce a new way of looking at functional foods. Most functional foods demand that you change your way of living. And while people know more and more about what they have to do live a healthier lifestyle, this doesn't seem to help," added Berge.
"The target group for this product very often has high cholesterol levels. We are not trying to make people drink more beer but offering an opportunity for those who drink lots of beer to gain a health benefit," he said.