Experts are of the opinion that phytosterols improve the body’s ability to lower cholesterol levels. Like other cholesterol-lowering foods, including salmon and oats, phytosterols are supposed to lower the levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol, LDL.
Phytosterols, or plant sterols and stanol esters, are naturally occurring compounds in the cell membranes of plants. They are found in small quantities in grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, rice bran, and wheat germ are very rich in phytosterols. These compounds are now being added to some of the food products, like margarine, juices, yogurts, spreads, and granola bars, and these products are now available under various brand names.
Sterols and stanols are structurally similar to cholesterol. These compounds then compete with real cholesterol during absorption from the digestive system. This hinders absorption of LDL cholesterol, and lowers its level in blood. The unabsorbed cholesterol from the food is then excreted from the body. Some studies show that about three servings of sterols per day are helpful in reducing 20 points of cholesterol. Another study reported that an ounce of stanol-containing margarine help to reduce about 14% of cholesterol in the body. Thus the major health claims for these compounds are its cholesterol-lowering effects and the indirect heart health benefits that it offers.
It is easy to include these healthy compounds in the diet by just changing to a fortified product in any of the food that you prefer. It can be a spread, juice, snack bar, or yogurt. Using margarine spreads fortified with sterols and stanols does not mean that you can have an additional serving. They do add to the calories. As per The National Cholesterol Education Program, the amount of sterols and stanols recommended for a person with high cholesterol levels is 2g.
No significant side effects have been reported by taking phytosterols in any of the studies. These compounds are not found to affect the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Some nutritionists are of the opinion that phytosterol-fortied food must be recommended only for people with high cholesterol levels and not for anyone else. Do discuss with your doctor before starting with these products.