Plant-SterolsFunctional foods—those providing health benefits beyond basic vitamins and minerals—are increasingly popular as consumers look for ways to improve their heart health, reduce their risk of developing cancer or diabetes, and enjoy continued good health while aging. Phytosterols, a component of plant cell
membranes, have become one of the hottest trends in functional foods in the last decades.

Half of respondents to a recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council identified phytosterols as important in promoting heart health, yet only 40% consume phytosterols on a regular basis.

Phytosterols are chemically very similar to the cholesterol produced by the body and interfere with the intestinal absorption of cholesterol so that it doesn’t end up in the plaque that can line blood vessel walls. This plaque makes the blood vessels less flexible and more prone to blood clots, which in turn can lead to heart attack or stroke.

Phytosterols are found naturally in small amounts in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereal grains, legumes, and vegetable oils but generally in amounts too low to provide significant heart-health benefits. As early as the 1950s, scientists discovered that adding phytosterols to the diet of chickens or rabbits lowered the animals’ cholesterol levels and reduced the amount of plaque buildup in their blood vessels. In 1999, several food manufacturers began marketing margarine with added phytosterols as a means of decreasing cholesterol intake and lowering cholesterol levels in the body.

Phytosterols are now added to some brands of milk, yogurt, snack bars, and juices. According to Georgia Kostas, MPH, RD, LD, author of The Cooper
Clinic Solution to the Diet Revolution, using foods fortified with phytosterols is simple, makes sense, and works to improve heart health.

The FDA approved a health claim for phytosterols in 2000, noting that “foods containing at least 0.4 grams per serving of plant sterols, eaten twice a day with meals for a daily total intake of at least 0.8 grams, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

In 2001, the National Cholesterol Education Program encouraged people to consume 2 grams of phytosterols per day as part of an overall hearthealthy
diet—an amount shown by researchers to lower total cholesterol by 4% to 11% and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by 7% to 15%.

Replacing foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol with phytosterol-fortified foods provides a double benefit: The phytosterols decrease the absorption of cholesterol, and the foods have no saturated fat.

Because foods fortified with phytosterols reduce cholesterol absorption and cause it to be excreted, there’s concern that they may also reduce the absorption of carotenoids and nutrients with chemical construction similar to phytosterols, such as fat-soluble vitamins. Experts recommend counteracting this potential negative effect by consuming a minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, including one daily serving of a carotenoid-rich food
(eg, sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, kale, collard greens) to ensure optimal nutrient absorption.

FOODS NATURALLY CONTAINING PHYTOSTEROLS
  • Almonds (1 ounce): 39 milligrams
  • Brussels sprouts (1/2 cup): 34 milligrams
  • Canola oil (1 tablespoon): 92 milligrams
  • Corn oil (1 tablespoon): 102 milligrams
  • Peanuts (1 ounce): 62 milligrams
— SOURCE: USDA NATIONAL NUTRIENT DATABASE

A SAMPLING OF FOODS FORTIFIED WITH PHYTOSTEROLS
  • BENECOL Regular and Light spreads (1 tablespoon):0.85 grams
  • Minute Maid Premium Heart Wise orange juice (8 ounces): 1 gram
  • Promise activ Light Spread (1 tablespoon): 1 gram
  • Racconto Essentials Heart Health Pasta (2 ounces): 0.4 grams
  • Smart Balance HeartRightLight Buttery Spread (1 tablespoon): 1.7 grams
  • Smart Balance HeartRight Milk (8 ounces): 0.4 grams
  • Corazonas Oatmeal Squares: 0.8 grams; Tortilla chips: 0.05 grams; and Potato Chips: 0.4 grams
    (Remember, although they contain healthyphytosterols, these are still snacks and so shouldbe consumed in moderation.)
TAKE-AWAY MESSAGES

1. Eat an overall heart-healthy diet that includes low-fat sources of protein, whole grains, legumes, fat-free dairy products, and a minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
2. Limit daily cholesterol intake to no more than 200 milligrams.
3. Replace saturated fats with monounsaturated fats; for example, instead of using butter, choose olive oil.
4. Don’t eat foods containing trans fats.
5. Consume foods that naturally contain phytosterols: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereal grains, and legumes.
6. Use foods fortified with phytosterols in place of their nonfortified counterparts. For example, drink fortified orange juice instead of the regular version or use fortified spreads in place of ordinary margarine, says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RD, cofounder of Nutrition Babes.com.
7. Kara Behlke, RD, LD, a Hy-Vee dietitian in Marion, Iowa, often recommends foods fortified with phytosterols to her clients and encourages them to use these foods consistently throughout the day, roughly two to three times, for the best benefit.