Plant sterols, also called phytosterols, are chemical compounds found in the cell walls of plants. Their structure is very much like cholesterol. For this reason, plant sterols compete with cholesterol for absorption in the digestive tract. When sterols are absorbed instead of cholesterol, blood cholesterol levels are lowered, which can reduce the risk of diseases like stroke and heart disease. Three types of products contain plant sterols.
Natural Sterol Sources
Plant sterols exist naturally in all plant-based foods. However, plant-based oils are the most concentrated types of natural sterol sources. Some examples include vegetable, sesame, olive, canola and corn oil. Sesame oil tops the list of plant-based sterol oils, with 118 mg in one tablespoon. Certain types of nuts are also naturally high in plant sterols such as macadamia nuts, almonds and peanuts. Macadamia nuts have the highest amount of sterols in the nut category, with 33 mg per ounce. Grain products high in sterols include wheat germ, wheat bran and rye bread. Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower are the vegetables that naturally contain the highest amount of plant sterols. Apples, bananas and oranges are the fruits that contain the highest amounts of sterols.
Most people do not eat enough plant-based foods to get the maximum benefit of plant sterols. To solve this problem, some food manufacturers add plant sterols to products that do not naturally contain them or that do not naturally contain high concentrations. These food products include orange juice, rice milk, cheese, cow's milk, spreads, soy milk and breads. Specific products that contain high concentrations of plant sterols are Benecol spread, Take Control spread, Minute Maid Heart Wise orange juice, Promise Active spread, Oroweat Whole Grain and Oat bread and Smart Balance Heart Right spread. The process of fortifying a food with plant sterols does not change the taste. Manufacturers must list the amounts of sterols in each food on its label.
You can purchase plant sterols as over-the-counter supplements. The labels may read beta-sitosterol or phytosterol. You can also find plant sterols in dietary supplements that contain several compounds that are marketed as heart-healthy formulas. Some specific products include Centrum Cardio, Bayer Heart Health Advantage and Nature Made CholestOff. Plant sterol supplements are available in pills you can swallow or chewable soft gels. To get the maximum benefit from plant sterol supplements, take them with foods that contain fat. Foods with similar chemical structures help increase the amount of each that can be absorbed in the digestive tract.