Plant Sterols and Stanols:
Reducing the Risk of Heart Disease
Plant sterols and stanols are an important part of the cell membranes in plants. They are similar to the cholesterol in animal cells, but are found only in plants. They are found in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, and oils.
The news media has reported about plant sterols, because eating them appears to lower blood low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, also known as “bad” cholesterol. Reducing LDL levels is important, because high LDL is considered a risk factor for heart disease. Some studies show that including plant sterols in the diet daily can reduce your LDL level between 6% and 15%.
Plant sterols and stanols in the diet
Plant sterols and stanols are found in small amounts in food. Experts suggest that you need at least 2 grams (g)/day to get the LDL-lowering effects. This amount is difficult to obtain from foods.
As a result, food manufacturers have developed a way to add plant stanols and sterols to foods, including:
- Salad dressings
If you eat foods that are fortified with plant sterols and stanols, you can get enough each day to help reduce your LDL-cholesterol level. Using 2 to 3 tablespoons of fortified spread each day or drinking 16 fluid ounces of fortified orange juice can provide you with 2 g/day.
Food fortified with plant stanols and sterols do not look or taste any different than nonfortified foods.
Some research has shown that use of plant sterols and stanols results in lower levels of some nutrients in the blood, including beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A. Research is conflicting, but it appears that using plant sterols and stanols in the diet in moderation is safe.
If you are not trying to lower your LDL, it probably is still safe to consume plant sterols and stanols. A few questions about safety have surfaced, but foods fortified with plant sterols and stanols appear safe, especially if you are not eating very large quantities on a daily basis.
Food label claims
Food labels are allowed to claim that a food fortified with plant sterols or stanols can decrease blood LDL-cholesterol levels. In 2000, the US Food and Drug Administration authorized a health claim for plant sterols and stanols. Foods containing plant sterols and stanols are allowed to claim that they can reduce the risk of heart disease.
References and recommended readings
American Heart Association Nutrition Committee, Lichtenstein AH, Appel LJ, et al. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation. 2006;114(1):82-96. http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/reprint/CIRCULATIONAHA.106.176158. Accessed April 7, 2014.
International Food Information Council Foundation. Functional foods fact sheet: plant stanols and sterols. Food Insight Web site. http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=Functional_Foods_Fact_Sheet_Plant_Stanols_and_Sterols. Published July 1, 2007. Accessed April 7, 2014.
Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S, Raymond JL. Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process. 13th ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:757.
Review Date 4/14