General Qs and As on Plant Sterols

What are plant sterols?

Plant sterols occur naturally in plant based foods. Vegetable oils are a major source of plant sterols in Canadians' diets but they can also be found in other plant foods, such as nuts, cereals and legumes. Eating foods with added plant sterols can help lower LDL-cholesterol levels, a benefit for those persons who have high LDL-cholesterol levels, a well known risk factor for heart disease.

How do plant sterols lower cholesterol?

Eating up to 3 grams of plant sterols as part of the daily diet increases the removal of cholesterol from the body. The result is a lower LDL-cholesterol, with no effect on HDL (good) cholesterol or triglycerides.

Are plant sterols considered natural health products (NHPs) or food?

When plant sterols are placed in a food product that is intended for normal use as part of the diet, they are considered to be a food.  When plant sterols are taken as a supplement, they are considered to be a natural health product.

What kind of foods are plant sterols allowed to be added to?

Plant sterols can be added to spreads, mayonnaise, margarine, calorie-reduced margarine, salad dressing, yogurt and yogurt drinks, and vegetable and fruit juices.

How much plant sterols is allowed to be added to foods? Why?

A limited number of foods will be allowed to contain up to 1 g of plant sterols per serving. Health Canada research determined the levels and ranges of foods to which plant sterols could be added without exceeding the upper intake limit of 3 g of plant sterols per day in adults and 1 g plant sterols per day in children.

Is there a risk of having too much plant sterols?

Health Canada has recently completed a safety assessment regarding the addition of plant sterols to foods. Health Canada has no safety concerns with intakes of plant sterols up to 3 g (as free phytosterols) per day in adults and 1 gram per day in children.

Can I use plant sterol enriched foods with cholesterol lowering medications?

Plant sterol enriched foods used together with cholesterol lowering medications should be done in consultation with your physician. Individuals on statin treatment should advise their doctor that they are consuming plant sterol-enriched foods as the dosage of medication may need to be adjusted.

Can plant sterol enriched foods be used by pregnant or breastfeeding women and young children under 5 years of age?

Plant sterols are considered safe, cholesterol-lowering ingredients within the guidelines set by Health Canada. However, plant sterol enriched foods are not recommended for children, breast-feeding or pregnant women. These groups have specific nutritional and dietary needs and lowering blood cholesterol is not normally a priority for them.

Is the consumption of 2 to 3 servings of plant sterols-enriched foods equivalent to the consumption of 80 oranges, 22 kg of broccoli or 100 lb of vegetables?

No. These are two different things that cannot be compared. The blood cholesterol lowering effect of consuming 2 to 3 servings of plant sterols-enriched foods has been clearly demonstrated. However, this effect is by no means equivalent to the effect of consuming a diet rich in fruit and vegetables. Fruit and vegetables provide many other nutrients and substances that contribute in different ways to the promotion and maintenance of health, including heart health.

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