Nutrition Articles

Plant Sterols and Stanols: What You Need to Know

Do They Really Help Lower Cholesterol?

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Heart health is on a lot of people's minds these days, especially as more and more people are developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type II diabetes. You may think that you're on your way to figuring it all out, too. Eating a heart-healthy diet? Check. Engaging in regular exercise to improve your cardiovascular fitness? You bet. Working to achieve or maintain a healthy weight? Of course.

So when new products comes to market, whether a prescription medication you see on a TV commercial or the latest "functional foods" from the grocery, you probably feel confused all over again. Plant sterols and plant stanols are becoming increasingly popular as supplements and food additives. If you've seen (or used) orange juice, yogurt, and chocolates that boast cholesterol-lowering benefits, then you've probably encountered plant sterols and stanols without even knowing it. The foods that contain them boast heart healthy benefits on their packages, which may have caught your interest. So what are these sterols and stanols? Do you need them? But maybe more importantly, will they really help to lower your cholesterol?

What Are Sterols and Stanols?
Plant sterols and plant stanols are phytoesterols (small but essential components of certain plant membranes). They are found naturally (in very small amounts) in some vegetable oils, nuts, grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Research has shown that plant sterols and plant stanols have the ability to help lower cholesterol. Hoping to cash in and make common food products even "healthier," food manufacturers have taken these phytoesterols from their naturally occurring sources, concentrated them, and added them to common foods that wouldn't normally contain them, such as vegetable oil spreads (margarine), mayonnaise, yogurt smoothies, orange juice, cereals, and snack bars to name a few.
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

    And note that the recommendation is for 2 to 3 grams of the stuff *every day*. Otherwise it does not have the same effect. Hence the need for supplementation, whether with maca powder (yuck), in capsule form, or in processed foods that aren't all that healthy in and of themselves.
    MM - 10/6/2014 7:36:31 PM
    Yup, so if I eat this brand of chocolate covered almonds, I'm improving my health. NOT! Unfortunately, it isn't easy to get enough sterols and stanols from real food on a daily basis, at least not in sufficient quantities to lower one's cholesterol, and for a change, the studies are unequivocal -- sterols and stanols do help.

    I've heard there are supplements available, and that's what I'm looking for, not these pseudo-health foods.

    Mind you, 2 Tbsp of maca powder gives you what you need, if you can stomach the stuff. Not recommended for smoothies (been there, done that), but some strong coffee helps cover the flavour if you make some sort of a coffee drink.

    Note that another thing not mentioned in the article is that sterols and stanols have no effect whatsoever on a person with normal cholesterol levels.

    Wish there were real food out there, aside from the vile maca root (which is only available in Canada in a rather highly processed form), that had medicinal quantities of these nutrients. - 10/6/2014 7:33:52 PM
  • Apparently the previous posters missed part of the article...! Yes, they are in SOME veggies, fruits, nuts but in such low quantities that if you want to see a benefit, you must consume copious quantities of those items..... Its not Spark's fault that Mother Nature didn't increase the amounts naturally! LOL As for me, grateful for the info...and the chart listing:
    Avocado, 1 small 0.13 g
    Corn oil, 1 Tbsp 0.13 g
    Sunflower seeds, 1/4 cup 0.19 g

    Thank You!!
    patti - 5/2/2014 12:40:04 AM
  • So very disappointed in this article. So we are supposed to eat cookies, vegetable oil, tortilla chips? Wow! I've been trying to go "real food" for health so this article just blew my mind. Not sure I would turn to this site for health counseling. Tracking food, calories and nutrients and then tracking exercise on this site is fine but WOW on this article. This unfortunately is not the only article I have had this kind of reaction to though. - 4/7/2014 8:22:16 AM
  • I know I am preaching to the choir here, but don't you think this article oversimplifies the role of cholesterol in our body. And isn't it usually true that the food that screams health claims all over the box is usually the very food you should leave right there on the grocery aisle shelf. Real Whole Foods always reign supreme, you don't need a BS in Nutrition to know that. - 2/28/2014 10:25:25 AM
  • It's obvious the way to get these nutrients naturally is to eat more fruits and vegetables. Haven't we learned anything from the problems cause by removing nutrients and then enriching our foods with the basic 8? While the studies have been going on for 50 years, I doubt the WHOLE picture has been studied, looking how one food has balanced ingredients to make it a complete healthy food. As long as we continue to try to make our cake out of fake ingredients, and then how to eat it and supplement with fake supplements to try to make it okay to do all of that, our health is going to suffer. WHOLE, UNADULTERATED FOOD!! - 2/15/2013 10:18:37 AM
    I'm with all of you. Tell me how to get this from natural foods. I thought the whole point of this website is to help us find the best and most natural ways to health, fitness, and weight loss. Please follow up with an article that tells us where to get this in real food. Thanks. - 11/25/2012 9:51:07 AM
    Come on wake up people, and smell fresh food. The more we eat heal balanced and natural food, less we have to worry about all these stuff. Main problem anywhere is portion. Once that got take care of, other problems will be slowly rest in peace.also don't forget 8 glasses of water everyday. - 11/22/2012 11:19:35 AM
  • Agree with the others - a followup article with real food, rather than processed/manufac
    tured food, would be terrific. - 9/21/2012 11:39:16 PM
  • Perhaps these franstein foods are unnecessary for the healthy people, but I would try them as opposed to cholesterol meds any day.
    I had often wondered how they worked. Thanks for the explanation.
    I do have high cholesterol, and am eating most days under 100 mgs of cholesterol, and doing my excercises. I will add other things as I see the need. ANYTHING is better than meds, and I´ll use them only as a last resort. - 1/31/2012 2:27:47 PM
  • I would never advocate people drinking orange juice for this reason. ALL fruit juice is just concentrated fructose, ( the addictive half of the sugar molecule). Just think how many oranges it takes to make 1 glass of juice. Could you eat that many oranges in one sitting? It may be hard work extracting the juice, but you'd be better off eating 1 orange per day, getting the benefit of the fibre in it. Remember folks, fructose makes you fat!.
    Don't take my word for it, do your own research. Fat doesn't make you fat either, the wrong type of fat may give you heart disease, but it doesn't make you fat. No-one has proved it does, either. Try and follow that research, see where it gets you. To someone's 'opinion' that's where, not a proven fact.

    Silver Angel

    Spread the Love - 12/4/2011 1:29:21 AM
  • Ditto Bittersweet100... I too would love a list of actual plants/whole foods that are high in sterols/stanols? Thanks, Diane - 10/26/2011 1:49:52 PM
  • This article would have been much more informative if it had listed more REAL foods, rather than foods manufactured in a laboratory/factor

    I'm on a generic statin for high cholesterol (lovastatin), and so is my husband. His doctor wanted him to try Red Yeast Rice because it is "natural." However, I did a lot of research and was very concerned about these products. Numerous studies and lab analyses have shown that:

    1) there are varying levels of cholesterol-lower
    ing ingredients in different brands;
    2) there can be different levels in the same brand, and even in the same batch of product;
    3) some brands contain PRESCRIPTION STATINS;
    4) some of the Red Yeast Rice brands contain MORE of the cholesterol-lower
    ing statins than the Prescription doses - so you don't know what you're getting;
    5) these supplements are not regulated by the FDA - so there are no guidelines or regulations as to what amounts of statins you are getting in these supplements.

    Additionally, the cost of my husband's prescription which has been around for about 40 years - well tested & documented - is $4.00 a month. The equivalent amount of Red Yeast Rice would cost him over $30.00 a month!

    Sometimes a prescription medicine is better than a natural alternative.

    The following is an extract from the Mayo Clinic website:

    Red yeast rice is the product of yeast ( Monascus purpureus ) grown on rice, and is served as a dietary staple in some Asian countries. It contains several compounds collectively known as monacolins, substances known to inhibit cholesterol synthesis. One of these, "monacolin K," is a potent inhibitor of HMG-CoA reductase, and is also known as mevinolin or lovastatin (MevacorŽ, a drug produced by Merck & Co., Inc).

    Red yeast rice extract has been sold as a natural cholesterol-lower
    ing agent in over the counter supplements, such as Cholestin TM (Pharmanex, Inc). However, there has been legal and industrial dispute as to whether red yeast rice is a drug or a dietary supplement, involving the manufacturer, the U.S. Food and Drug A... - 9/17/2011 3:46:33 PM
  • I really don't trust the food companies and all of their additives. I juice every morning (fresh organic veggies and a green apple)...probably getting all the plant benefits I need from spinach, kale, cucumber, carrots, ginger, lemon, celery and the apple. I sometimes wonder who gets paid and how much for promoting these food additives.....hmm

    My cholesteral is low at 52 years of age. - 9/17/2011 2:59:11 PM
  • Can you supply a list of actual plants/whole foods that are high in sterols/stanols? Thanks, Carolyn - 9/17/2011 12:46:31 PM

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