NORTHVILLE, MI (August 27, 1999) --

"Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may diet." -- Unknown

Tonight, I'd like to begin a series of columns dedicated to the products and services of our Drip Port healthcare superstar Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ). Kicking things off will be an in-depth look at the latest soldier in the battle against heart disease.

Hypercholesterolemia, or high blood cholesterol levels, is a condition affecting a large number of adults in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, more than 98 million American adults have blood cholesterol levels above the recommended ceiling of 200 mg/dL, with 38 million of those falling in the "high risk" group, measuring blood cholesterol above 240 mg/dL.

The evidence connecting high cholesterol levels with an increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) is irrefutable. Moreover, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that even "near normal" cholesterol levels are attributable to increased health risk from CHD.

You know what this means, don't you? It's time to begin stuffing ourselves with lots of buttery bagels and muffins!

McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a division of our guy J&J, is suggesting you do just that... with a slight modification.

Benecol is McNeil's margarine-like food spread that, when consumed in proper doses, lowers blood cholesterol levels as much as 10%. This is enough to knock some of us out of the "high risk" group and into the "borderline risk" group, or from the "borderline risk" group to a specimen of health, vitality, and fitness. When are those Sydney Olympics?

Steering the Foolmobile back onto the lane of reason, let's take a closer look at this wonder spread, what it does, and what it might mean for the general public, as well as for J&J shareholders.

First, just what is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in all animal tissues. It's vital to the structure and function of all the cells in your body, and it is a precursor to bile acids -- which aid in digestion -- and hormones.

The human body produces most of the cholesterol it requires, the rest entering the system in foods such as meat, eggs, and butter. The level of blood cholesterol in your body is related directly to diet and genetic predisposition. In others words, you might be born with a tendency for hypercholesterolemia.

Why is cholesterol bad?

It's not all bad. Being a lipid (an organic compound of fat), cholesterol is incapable of traveling through blood on its own -- remember the old saying "oil and water don't mix"? Therefore, being a necessary component of life with a need for speed, cholesterol attaches itself to a motorscooter called an apoprotein. The marriage of apoproteins and cholesterol results in a blood-soluble globule known as a lipoprotein.

The two main groups of lipoproteins are low-density lipoproteins (LDL), usually referred to as the "bad" cholesterol, and high-density lipoproteins (HDL), known in most circles as "good" cholesterol. However, LDLs, resenting the pejorative moniker, would argue that they're merely doing their jobs.

The job of the LDL is to store and transport cholesterol to organs and tissues. When LDL levels become high, the globules tend to break down and accumulate as plaque on the inside of arterial walls, leading to decreased blood flow and coronary heart disease.

HDLs are the good guys, the Jedi Knights of the lipid universe; they help to remove excess cholesterol from the blood. Exercise and a diet high in certain kinds of fish elevate serum HDL levels.

Effective treatment of hypercholesterolemia includes decreasing LDL and overall cholesterol levels, while at the same time increasing HDL levels. Ideally, this is achieved through diet modification and exercise. When these efforts fall short, the patient typically must turn to prescription medications for adequate control. But now there is a middleman.

Benecol, which has been available in Finland since 1995, derives its lipid-lowering properties from compounds extracted from plants known as phytosterols, which are structurally similar to cholesterol. Sterols, and their saturated derivatives stanols, differ enough from cholesterol chemically such that they are not significantly absorbed when consumed. In fact, when ingested, plant sterols and stanols actually interfere with cholesterol absorption, leading to a decrease in circulating blood levels.

After much research, the Raisio Group in Finland developed a plant stanol that could be incorporated into fatty foods, such as a margarine-like spread, without affecting the taste of the product. Benecol was born. After a few years of further study, approval for distribution in the U.S. was gained in early 1999.

Shhhhh. Listen carefully. Hear that? That's the sound of foreheads clonking on desktops around the globe, a signal to me that I better wrap up this background introduction or risk losing our entire readership to the Sandman.

It's also a good time to adjourn for the week and begin a relaxing weekend. We'll pick up next time with a look at the early consumer reception of Benecol, its competition, and the market for unique nondrug health aids.

Be Foolish!