Food to lower your cholesterol

Which ones give you the most bang for your buck?
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 
  • Updated:14 Mar 2008
 

01 .Introduction

Low fat yoghurt

In brief

  • 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.

 
 

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02.The cost of cutting cholesterol

 

We visited three Coles and three Woolworths supermarkets in both Melbourne and Sydney and surveyed the prices of 13 common sterol-enriched products. We also compared the prices of equivalent non-sterol-enriched products where they existed. Some of these products aren’t cheap.

  • A litre of DEVONDALE Reduce sterol-enriched milk is more than one-and-a-half times the price of a litre of regular DEVONDALE full-cream milk, for example.
  • FLORA Pro-Activ spreads are all almost three times as expensive as their regular equivalents in the FLORA range.
    You’ll pay three times the price for a 500 g tub of WOOLWORTHS SELECT Pro-Col Light spread as for the same-size tub of regular WOOLWORTHS SELECT Canola Spread.
  • The mark-up on YOPLAIT HeartActive yoghurt compared with YOPLAIT Original, on the other hand, is minimal — around 4%.
  • All the sterol-enriched products we surveyed contain the same amount of plant sterols (0.8 g) in a standard serve. But the table below shows which one will have the least impact on your wallet.
Brand / product Cost per standard serve ($)
Nuttelex Pulse spread 0.12 (A)
Woolworths Select Pro-Col Light spread 0.14
Logicol Original spread 0.16
Logicol Plus Vitamins spread 0.17
Logicol Extra Light spread 0.17
Flora Pro-Activ spread 0.17
Flora Pro-Activ Light spread 0.17
Flora Pro-Activ Ultra Light spread 0.17
Flora Pro-Activ with Olive Oil spread 0.17
Devondale Reduce milk 0.66
Pura HeartActive milk 0.71
Yoplait HeartActive yoghurt 1.50
Logicol yoghurt 2.00

Table notes

(A) The cost of two 5 g serves. Nuttelex Pulse suggests a serve of 5 g (which contains 0.4 g plant sterols) — half the recommended amount of the other spreads — so we’ve doubled this for ease of comparison.

Product prices compared

  • Overall, spreads are the cheapest and yoghurts the most expensive way to get an equivalent amount of plant sterols.
  • At just 12 cents a standard serve, NUTTELEX Pulse is the best value for money, albeit marginally.
  • LOGICOL yoghurt at $2 a serve, on the other hand, is 16 times more expensive.
  • But if you don’t have to worry about the cost and you don’t normally use spreads or don’t eat a lot of bread, but pour milk on your cereal and eat a tub of yoghurt every day, you might as well buy the more expensive sterol-enriched milk and yoghurt that you’ll be sure to eat enough of.

CHOICE says

Even though sterol-enriched products are effective at helping to control cholesterol levels, high blood cholesterol needs to be managed under medical supervision. And to reduce your overall risk of heart disease it’s still vital that you eat a healthy diet that’s low in saturated fat and high in fruit, vegetables and whole grains, that you stop smoking and increase your activity. If your blood cholesterol levels are normal, there’s little advantage in eating these products — it’ll just cost you money for not very much.


03.How much do you need?

 

Most of us eat about 200 to 400mg of plant sterols daily — vegetarians often eat more — via plant-based foods that contain them naturally, including vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, legumes, bread and cereals. But the amount recommended to get a significant cholesterol-lowering benefit is much more — 2 to 3g per day — and that’s where products enriched with plant sterols can really make a difference.

Research suggests that eating 2 to 3g of plant sterols daily can lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels by 10% on average. Eating more than this amount is unlikely to hurt you, but nor will it lower your cholesterol any further. Less than this amount will simply have a lesser result.

In order to get the recommended 2 to 3g of plant sterols a day, you need to eat about three standard serves of sterol-enriched products (see What's a standard serve? below).

This could be three cups of milk or two serves of spread and a tub of yoghurt or any other combination of sterol-enriched products — it’s the quantity, not the type of product, that matters.


What's a standard serve?

Standard serves

Eating about six teaspoons (three serves) of spread may seem at odds with the usual message to cut down on fat for a healthy heart.

However, the Heart Foundation recommends you replace saturated fats (such as those found in butter and dairy blends) with healthier polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which sterol-enriched products have in abundance — and you have the benefits of plant sterols to help lower your blood cholesterol levels further.