What Are Plant Sterols?

Nutrition experts advise people with high blood cholesterol levels to eat foods high in fiber and low in cholesterol and saturated fats. While this measure can reduce blood cholesterol levels, sometimes they don’t go far enough. Thus, other interventions are proposed, including the addition of natural plant sterols to their diet. Plant sterols play a significant role in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). They lower harmful low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol levels by blocking its absorption. Just what are these plant sterols?

What is plant sterols?

Plant sterols, or phytosterols, are a group of steroid alcohols that resemble animal cholesterol’s chemical structure and carry out the same cellular functions in plants. They are naturally present in some fruits and vegetables, nuts, vegetable oils, legumes, cereals, seeds, and other plant sources. Natural plant sterols are white powders that come with a mild, characteristic odor. They are insoluble in water but soluble in alcohols. In addition to the health benefits they provide, plant sterols are used in medicine, in cosmetics, and as food additives.

Plant sterols occur at low levels. This is why it would not be easy to get enough sterols for effective reduction of cholesterol through whole foods alone. Only two grams of plant sterols can be extracted from about 100 pounds of vegetables, fruits, or nuts. Foods that contain not less than 0.4 grams of natural plant sterols per serving eaten twice a day, as part of a low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol diet may reduce your risk of CHD.

What do they do?

Phytosterols remove cholesterol from your body by blocking cholesterol absorption from your intestine. Cholesterol enters your intestine either from the diet or from the cholesterol produced by the body storage pool. Cholesterol is transported via the cells lining of the digestive tract to the storage pool found in the liver.

Since they are physically similar to cholesterol, plant sterols can compete with the cholesterol to be transported from the intestine. But the body doesn’t require plant sterols once they are taken up – as a result, plant sterols are sent back to the intestine. This means that the body absorbs less cholesterol. With a proper diet of foods containing plant sterols, you can reduce your blood cholesterol levels.

The bottom line

Plant sterols are a very promising intervention aimed at lowering CHD risk. You can have the maximum beneficial effects if you consume about 2-3 grams of plant sterol per day. Reduction of LDL cholesterol levels ranges between 6% to 15%. Many scientists also present evidence suggesting other positive health benefits like reduced risk of some types of cancer.

Plant sterol supplement is a proven method of reducing dietary cholesterol accepted by experts and organizations like the American Dietetic Association and the National Cholesterol Education Program. In fact, over 140 clinical studies have shown that plant sterols indeed lower LDL cholesterol.