Strong sales of Benecol have helped the cholesterol-lowering dairy category return to growth, allaying fears purchases would nosedive in the recession.

New figures show value sales for the category rose 6.8% to £128.4m in the four weeks to 11 July [IRI], with a 6.4% rise for the 12 weeks to the same date. This contrasts with mid-2008, when the category was in single-digit decline.

Category growth has been driven by Benecol, which has increased its share by 4.1 percentage points to 48.9% of the market over the past year and overtaken rival Flora Pro-activ (47.5%).

Benecol's value sales have risen 23.2% to £4.8m [IRI 4w/e 11 July] with strong growth in drinking yoghurts, up 31.2%, and yoghurt, up 20.8%.

Despite a general trend for shoppers to move away from healthy products towards cheaper lines in the recession, better awareness of the dangers of cholesterol and a wider range of products had boosted sales, according to Esther van Onselen, marketing manager for Benecol Europe. "In these times, people are reappraising what they are putting in their bodies," she said. "They are thinking more about what they need."

Benecol consumers were now buying the range more frequently, she added.

Manufacturer McNeil Nutritionals launched a range of Benecol dairy-free drinks in 2007 and recently added a 5-a-day smoothie. "About 20% of our consumers buy into two or more of our products. We are trying to get them to buy across the range."

The next wave of marketing activity, which will promote the smoothies, kicks off in October. Details are currently under wraps, but the £2m three-month campaign will include 30-second TV spots, as well as print and online ads aimed at encouraging consumers to try the products and drive incremental growth.

Van Onselen also revealed that Benecol would be adding a cardiovascular disease reduction claim to packs following recent EU guidance on the benefits of phytosterols.