If there's something fishy about the spreads category it may be the result of manufacturers rushing to add Omega-3 to tubs. Health is a key driver within the butter and margarine category and the fish oil offers customers an extra-functional health benefit in spreads.

"Consumers commonly believe that fats are bad," explains Myles Ford, category manager at Unilever UK. "But some are good for us, particularly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as Omega-3 and 6 oils - the body can't manufacture them but they're necessary to maintain a healthy heart."

Unilever launched Flora Omega-3 plus spread in May. Paul Holden, Flora business manager at Unilever UK adds: "Omega-3 is a UK mega-trend - awareness has increased from 58% to 72% since 2003. The new product has the most Omega-3 of any spread - it's sure to continue growth of the Flora brand and the family health segment."

Unilever is not alone in this belief. Earlier this year, Dairy Crest launched St Ivel Gold Omega-3. According to George Wheen, marketing controller, this has allowed the brand to strengthen its functional health positioning and has also extended its health and low fat credentials.

Others getting in on the act include Matthews Foods, which produces branded and own-label products. The company recently enriched its Pure Dairy-Free Sunflower spread with Omega-3, benefiting lactose-intolerant consumers.

"Pure Sunflower is already high in Omega-6, but the addition of Omega-3 oil is a significant development for the product, building on the brand's strong dairy-free proposition," says brand manager Bronwen Arthur. "The spread offers consumers a clear benefit for choosing Pure Sunflower and packs will carry a 'Contains Omega-3 & 6' flash, differentiating the brand from other varieties."

Yet fish oil isn't the only addition to the spreads cate­gory; cholesterol-lowering varieties continue to make an impact. Benecol is at the forefront of innovation - owner McNeil Nutritionals recently launched Buttery Taste Spread in 500g packs, which, it says, is unique to cholesterol-reducing spreads and reflects the trend towards larger pack sizes.

Future healthy innovation could be less forthcoming, however, according to Unilever's Ford, because the larger players are reluctant to diversify. "The category probably suffers from lack of innovation, but given the traditional platform supporting most brands in the taste segment, ground-breaking innovation would seem unlikely," he says. "New functional benefits in healthy spreads will only create value if they add genuinely new offerings to the category." n