Kroger Co., the nation's largest traditional grocery chain, is marketing a new milk brand for its cholesterol-reducing ability.

The product, under Kroger's Active Lifestyle brand, is billed as the first national launch of a cholesterol-cutting milk. It adds to the company's expanding lines for consumers of health-conscious and natural/organic foods and the in-house brands the company sees as an important part of its profit growth strategy.

"There's a major trend toward health and wellness in the country," said Linda Severin, Kroger's vice president for corporate brands. "Managing cholesterol is just a key need for many of our customers. This is a way we can help our customers be proactive with their heart health."

The milk uses an ingredient with plant sterols, found naturally in some vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other foods, and recognized by the Food and Drug Administration as potentially helping reduce the risk of heart disease. The CoroWise plant sterols extract, from Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., already is offered in a range of national brand products from orange juice to granola bars.

Coca-Cola Co. spokesman Ray Crockett said its Minute Maid Heart Wise brand has been a strong seller since the cholesterol-cutting orange juice was rolled out in 2003.

Promised Land Dairy, based in San Antonio, began selling its Y.U.M. (Your Ultimate Milk) brand last fall in Texas, and slowly has added a few other states.

"I knew it was going to be a task to educate the customer to understand that you can have a dairy product that can lower your cholesterol," said Gordon Kuenemann, executive vice president of Promised Land, which also has chocolate and white-chocolate flavors of its cholesterol-cutting brand. "The customers really have been appreciative once they understand it."

Lower-fat and fat-free milk sales have been increasing, while whole-milk sales have been on a decline, according to U.S. Agriculture Department statistics.

"I'll be interested to see how well this does," Jim Dudlicek, editor of Dairy Field magazine, said of the new Kroger milk. "This really is the next big growth area for dairy foods, as a carrier of functional ingredients."

Kroger has been giving taste tests in stores where it's already available, including its home Cincinnati region, while selling the Active Lifestyle milk at the same price as its other milk brands.

Steve Whittaker popped a half-gallon of it into his shopping cart after a sample Wednesday morning at the Hyde Park neighborhood store.

"I'm interested in the fact it can lower cholesterol," said Whittaker, 48, who said he keeps an eye on his cholesterol rates. "We'll see how that works."

Mike Wirth, 65, was also intrigued.

"Considering I've had a triple bypass," he explained, sipping a paper cup of the milk.

Kroger has been both steadily expanding its Nature's Market store sections, with organic and natural foods, and its in-house, or corporate, brands.

Severin said corporate brand sales are growing rapidly, and now account for nearly one-fourth of Kroger's grocery sales.

In a conference call with analysts on Tuesday, Kroger executives said the in-house brands help boost profit margins and often do particularly well during periods such as now when many food prices are going up, because they are usually priced lower than national brands.

"We now have more than 10,000 private label products available only in Kroger's family of stores and have plans to continue to expand this successful area of our business," said David B. Dillon, Kroger's chairman and chief executive.

Kroger operates 2,458 supermarkets and multi-department stores in 31 states, under two dozen local banners that include Ralphs, Fred Meyer, Food 4 Less, King Soopers, Smith's, Fry's, Dillons, QFC and City Market.