Plant sterols are cholesterol-like compounds found in plants. They can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Since there are low amounts of plant sterols in plant-based foods, these compounds are also available in the form of dietary supplements and functional foods (such as margarine or spreads). Potential side effects of these products include heartburn, nausea, and gas.
What Are Plant Sterols?
Plant sterols are compounds naturally found in the membranes of plant cells. They are the plant versions of cholesterol (which occurs only in animals). These compounds can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Although many plant-based foods contain small amounts of plant sterols, there is much interest in using plant sterols as a dietary supplement, especially in the form of functional foods (such as margarines or spreads).
There are many other health benefits that they may provide, some which are more valid than others.
It is thought that they reduce the risk of heart disease mostly by lowering cholesterol. Because they are not absorbed well from the digestive system to the rest of the body, they work mostly within the digestive system. They work primarily by blocking the absorption of cholesterol from the intestine.
Are They Effective?
There is good evidence that they can lower cholesterol levels and may reduce the risk of heart disease. There is not enough evidence to tell if they are effective for other uses as well (see Do Plant Sterols Work? for more information).
Written by/reviewed by: Kristi Monson, PharmD;Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last reviewed by: KristiMonson, PharmD;
List of references (click here):
American Heart Association Nutrition Committee, Lichtenstein AH, Appel LJ, Brands M, et al. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation 2006;114(1):82-96.
Berger A, Jones PJ, Abumweis SS. Plant sterols: factors affecting their efficacy and safety as functional food ingredients. Lipids Health Dis 2004;3:5.
Food and Drug Administration, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. FDA talk paper: FDA authorizes new coronary heart disease health claim for plant sterol and plant stanol esters (9/5/2000). FDA Web site. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/ANSWERS/ANS01033.html. Accessed January 31, 2008.
Jellin JM, editor. Pharmacist's Letter/Prescriber's Letter Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database Web site. Available at: http://naturaldatabase.com/. Accessed January 17, 2008.
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