- Eating 2–3 g per day of plant sterols in the form of enriched spread, yoghurt, milk or a combination of these products can help lower your cholesterol. See How much do you need? for details.
- Of the products we surveyed, spreads are the most cost-effective way of getting your daily plant sterols. Yoghurt can cost 16 times more than spread for the same amount of plant sterols. The cost of cutting cholesterol shows which one will have the least impact on your wallet.
More and more products that claim to help lower your cholesterol are showing up on supermarket shelves. Where previously this added benefit was offered by spreads alone, you can now get yoghurts and milks that do the same job, with cholesterol-lowering breakfast cereals on the horizon. And there’s good evidence that they do what they say.
These products have been enriched with plant sterols (also known as phytosterols), which have a similar chemical structure to cholesterol. When eaten, they’re thought to compete with and block the absorption of cholesterol from the intestine, ultimately reducing the amount of cholesterol that ends up in your blood.
These products can have an impact on cholesterol levels in a matter of weeks. But as with cholesterol-lowering medication, you need to have them daily for the benefits to last. The costs can add up, so we’ve worked out which products are most cost-effective for getting your daily plant sterols. See the table.
Please note: this information was current as of March 2008 but is still a useful guide today.
Who can they benefit?
People at risk of heart disease and in particular those who have high blood cholesterol levels (total cholesterol of 5.5 mmol/L or more) can benefit from eating products enriched with plant sterols. Research shows that if you lower your blood cholesterol levels, you lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Some research suggests that a reduction in LDL cholesterol levels by about 10% could reduce the risk of heart disease by 20–25% — although this large a benefit is most likely in someone with risk factors (a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, being overweight or a smoker, for example) as well as high blood cholesterol.
Products enriched with plant sterols can work together with cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins, as well as cholesterol-lowering diets, to lower blood cholesterol levels even further, but they’re not meant to replace your medication. And if you’re taking cholesterol-lowering medication, check with your doctor first before using foods enriched with plant sterols at the same time.
People with familial hypercholesterolaemia (an inherited genetic condition that results in high blood LDL cholesterol levels from birth) or diabetes may also benefit from eating these products. However, recent research has suggested that people with metabolic syndrome (also known as Syndrome X) may not. People with a very rare, inherited metabolic disease called sitosterolaemia shouldn’t eat these products.
Are they safe?
Foods enriched with plant sterols are generally recognised as being safe to eat, although they haven’t been tested specifically for pregnant women. However, there’s rarely any need for pregnant or breastfeeding women or young children — unless under medical advice — to be concerned about lowering cholesterol.
There’s one small caveat: plant sterols have been shown to lower blood levels of the antioxidants beta-carotene and lycopene. So if you’re regularly eating products enriched with plant sterols, also eat additional fruit and vegetables — orange-coloured ones in particular — to help compensate for any loss.