What are plant sterols?
It is the cholesterol lowering properties of plant sterols and stanols that is making them appealing for people with high cholesterol. Plant sterols occur naturally in small amounts in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals, legumes, vegetable oils and other plants. They are similar in structure to cholesterol but cannot be made by the body. Plant stanols are the saturated form of plant sterols and occur in smaller quantities in vegetable oils, beans and corn.
Where do you find plant sterols?
Plant sterols only occur in small amounts in plant based foods. The term plant sterol in this Fact Sheet is taken to mean plant sterols, plant stanols and their esterified forms.
Phytosterol and phytostanol are other terms for plant sterol and plant stanols. The challenge of incorporating larger amounts of sterols into the diet has been overcome in recent years by manufacturers being able to add them to certain approved foods like margarine spreads, low fat milks, low fat yogurts, low fat cheese and breakfast cereals. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand has nutrient criteria for all foods which have permission to add plant sterols to ensure only appropriate foods are used.
How do plant sterols benefit your health?
When adequate amounts of plant sterols are eaten, they block the absorption of cholesterol. This means less cholesterol is absorbed into the body, resulting in lower blood cholesterol levels.
The Heart Foundation recommends eating plant sterols to help lower total and LDL cholesterol. This approach is complimentary to eating a healthy diet that is low in saturated fat and high in fibre. It is also considered an optional addition to taking medicine.
How much do you need in your diet?
The Western diet does not provide enough plant sterols to have a cholesterol lowering affect. The Heart Foundation recommends an intake of 2-3g of plant sterols a day, about 2 tablespoons of enriched margarine, to help reduce total and LDL cholesterol levels by around 10% in patients with elevated cholesterol levels. Studies show that this can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by up to 20%. Plant sterols do not provide additional benefits when consumed in excess of 3g per day.
It is important to note that eating foods enriched with plant sterols is recommended for adults watching their cholesterol levels. Foods which contain plant sterols will have on the label a statement saying that the product is intended for adults. Plant sterols have not been tested specifically in pregnant or lactating women. Plant sterols are not unsafe for pregnant and lactating women and young children but these groups are usually not concerned about their cholesterol levels and would not be consuming foods enriched with plant sterols unless they have been advised to by their medical practitioner.
Remembering that you need to eat 2-3g of plant sterols a day, the table below helps you work out different ways to achieve these using sterol-enriched foods.
Some sources of plant sterol- enriched products on the market
|Serve of plant sterolenriched food||Amount of plant sterolper serve*|
|200g (small tub) yogurt||0.8g|
|10g (2 teaspoons) margarine||0.8 g|
|250mL (1 cup) milk||0.8g|
|*You need a total of 2-3g of plant sterols a day to have a cholesterol lowering effect.|
An additional serve of yellow/orange fruit or vegetables is recommended when choosing plant sterol enriched foods. This is because plant sterols can lower the absorption of beta-carotene by the body.
This fact sheet contains general information. Please consult your healthcare professional for specific advice for your personal situation.
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Other Nutrition Fact Sheets that might interest you:
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand Fact Sheet Plant Sterols January 2010
Heart Foundation Position Statement Dietary Fats and Dietary Sterols for Cardiovascular Health 2009 accessed Mar 2011
Heart Foundation Position Statement (updated 2009) Phytosterol/stanols enriched foods 2007 (accessed April 2011) (This paper is referenced)
Heart Foundation Summary of evidence: Phytosterol/stanols enriched foods Updated December 2009 (accessed April 2011) (This paper is extensively referenced)
Tolonen H et al. Prevalence, awareness and treatment of hypercholesterolaemia in 32 populations: results from the Who Monica Project. Int J Epidemiol 2005; 34(1):181- 192.