By David Grotto, RDN, LDN
As seen on Real Life Nutrition on WebMD
Phytosterols are a plant’s version of cholesterol; however instead of clogging up our arteries, they clean them! Phytosterols promote the movement of cholesterol into the intestinal tract and help block the absorption sites responsible for attracting cholesterol. Think of it like a game of musical chairs. If there are only 10 seats for 10 cholesterol bodies, then all of them will get a seat. But if you add in an additional 10 bodies of phytosterols, odds are that the seats will be divided evenly between cholesterol and phytosterols allowing for the remaining cholesterol to be whisked away.
There are two basic types of phytosterols: plant sterols and stanols. Despite their different names, research indicates that there are no significant differences in their health impact on cholesterol when consumed as part of a low-fat diet. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a health claim for plant sterol/stanol esters for reducing the risk of heart disease: “Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include at least 1.3 grams of plant sterol esters or 3.4 grams of plant stanol esters, consumed in two meals with other foods, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
What Foods Contain Phytosterols?
In general, plant phytosterols are abundant in nuts, seeds, legumes and in plant oils. The richest sources are as follows:
Rice Bran Oil: 322mg/ounce: It has a mild nutty flavor and is a great oil to cook with because it has such a high smoke and is more resistant to oxidation giving it a nice long shelf life. It is an excellent source of vitamin E and contains an antioxidant called gamma-oryzanol, which has been thought to help lower one’s risk for heart disease. In one Japanese study, rice bran oil helped reduce symptoms of hot flashes among women subjects.
Corn oil: 264mg/ounce: Corn oil is one of the most popular cooking oils in the United States, especially in commercial cooking and baking. A double blind placebo controlled human study put men on either a diet containing 30% fat mainly from corn oil or from a sunflower/olive oil blend. Researchers found that the vitamin E content of corn oil did a better job of protecting the DNA of cells from mutating into dangerous cancer cells compared to a diet with sunflower and olive oil.
Sesame seeds/oil: 200-223mg /ounce. Cold-pressed sesame oil is great for deep frying because of its high smoke-point, whereas the dark brown oil is better suited for stir frying or sauces and dressings. Sesame seeds and their oil may have other heart health benefits beyond their phytosterol content. In a small study of hypertensive men who were placed on a daily regimen of a little over an ounce of sesame oil, it was observed that they had better blood flow through their arteries. This was the first study to show that daily intake of sesame oil improves endothelial function and this effect is sustained with long-term daily use.
Canola oil: 188mg/ounce: Canola oil is made from canola seed which belongs to the Brassica family where you’ll find members like cabbage and cauliflower. It contains the lowest level of saturated fats of any vegetable oil and is an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids and omega 3 fats, which benefit healthy cholesterol levels. Like corn oil, canola is also a rich source of vitamin E.
Sunflower seeds: 150mg/1/4 cup: Sunflower seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, copper, manganese, selenium, thiamine, and a Vitamin E (almost half of your daily requirements!). These nutrient packed seeds are also a good source of the B vitamins and other trace minerals, not to mention that they are also a great source of protein and fiber. The major phytosterol in sunflower seeds is beta-sitosterol which may benefit prostate and heart health.
Pistachios: 80mg/ounce: Pistachios are one of the oldest nuts in existence and it is estimated that humans have been eating pistachios in one form or another for at least 9,000 years. They are rich in the plant nutrients lutein, beta-carotene and contain a hefty amount of the gamma-tocopherol form of vitamin E. A randomized cross-over controlled Penn State study found that a couple of handfuls of pistachios a day added to a low cholesterol diet lowered LDL cholesterol and boosted heart-healthy antioxidants better than a heart healthy diet alone.
Wheat germ oil: 150mg/ounce: Wheat germ is the oily component of the wheat kernel. The oil contains high amounts of octacosanol, a plant nutrient found in vegetable oils that has been reported to enhance endurance, reaction time, and exercise capacity by increasing oxygen in cells of the body. It has also been associated with reducing cholesterol. A one- tablespoon serving supplies over 100% of the daily value of vitamin E. Wheat germ oil has also been used to treat various skin conditions such as eczema and skin rashes with some success.
Supplement it? Intakes of plant phytosterols/stanols in excess of the recommended 2g/day dose are associated with additional reductions in harmful LDL cholesterol, which may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends adding 2 grams daily of phytosterols to a cholesterol-lowering diet for people who have not been successful in lowering cholesterol by diet alone. In order to achieve this level, fortification of foods such as margarine-type spreads, orange juice, yogurt and yogurt-based drinks and dietary supplements might be necessary, even in addition to the plant sterol-rich foods mentioned above. A 5-week double blinded placebo controlled study demonstrated nearly a 5 percent reduction in “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in participants who had elevated cholesterol levels when a supplement containing approximately 2 grams of plant phytosterols was added to their cholesterol reducing diet.