Plant sterols (phytosterols) are components of plant cell membranes. In terms of chemical structure and functions, they are analogues of cholesterol that occurs in animal organisms. Among the plants, over 200 phytosterols were distinguished, which were divided into four groups. The most common phytosterols are sterols from the group of 4-dimethyl sterols, in which β-sitosterol, campesterol and stigmasterol stand out. 

Phytosterols are shown to be pro-health by lowering the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Thanks to this, they reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, which results in lowering the risk of developing ischemic heart disease and myocardial infarction. Cardiovascular disease is the first cause of death in Poland, and according to GUS data in 2013, it accounted for 45.8% of deaths. Therefore, the prevention of cardiovascular disease has become the overriding goal of health policy. Changing the lifestyle, reducing the supply of diet with cholesterol and simple carbohydrates, as well as trans fatty acids, increasing the supply of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids as well as plant sterols are the main elements of cardiovascular disease prophylaxis. 

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Occurrence of plant sterols 

Phytosterols are found in the cell membranes of all plants. Slight quantities of these in comparison with the cholesterol content are also present in animals. However, the occurrence of phytosterols in animal tissues is the result of the consumption of large amounts of phytoplankton or plants by animal organisms. The occurrence of plant sterols such as brassicasterol or campesterol is detected by min. in the mollusk, which results from the consumption of a large amount of various phytoplankton. 

The largest amounts of phytosterols in food products contain cold-pressed oils obtained from plant seeds. Large amounts of plant sterols also show sesame seeds, nuts, almonds, linseed, wheat germs, herbs and spices. Among vegetable oils, the content of phytosterols is reduced in the refining process, especially in the neutralization stage, during which the amount of phytosterols decreases by 20% on average. The content of phytosterols in vegetable oils is also reduced during frying and storage of these fats as a result of oxidation processes. 

The average content of plant sterols in selected food products per 100 grams 

Rice bran oil – 1190 mg 

Corn oil – 968 mg 

Sesame oil – 865 mg 

Sesame – 714 mg 

Wheat germ oil – 553 mg 

Seeds of sunflower – 534 mg 

Linseed oil – 338 mg 

Almond oil – 266 mg 

Olive oil – 221 mg 

Peanuts – 220 mg 

Pistachio nuts – 214 mg 

Linseed – 146 mg 

Pine nuts – 141 mg 

Almonds – 136 mg 

Pecan nuts – 102 mg 

Palm oil – 95 mg 

Coconut oil – 86 mg 

Avocado – 78 mg 

Walnuts – 72 mg 

Beets – 25 mg 

Amaranth – 24 mg 

Asparagus – 24 mg 

Brussels sprouts – 24 mg 

Oranges – 24 mg 

Apricots – 18 mg 

Cauliflower – 18 mg 

Grapefruit – 17 mg 

Bananas – 17 mg 

Onions – 15 mg 

Apples – 12 mg 

Strawberries – 12 mg 

Sweet potatoes – 12 mg 

Cabbage – 11 mg 

Lettuce – 11 mg 

Peaches – 10 mg 

The importance of plant sterols for health 

Consumption of phytosterols with daily diet prevents atherosclerotic processes by showing hypocholesterolemic effects (lowering blood cholesterol) and inhibiting platelet aggregation. Phytosterols lower the concentration of total cholesterol and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) lipoproteins and saturated fatty acids in the blood. 

The blood cholesterol lowering effect consists in limiting its absorption from the gastrointestinal tract. Phytosterols showing a similar chemical structure to cholesterol compete with it for absorption receptors in the gastrointestinal tract, thus preventing its absorption and increasing its excretion in faeces. 

Plant sterols may also have antitumor activity by initiating cell apoptosis processes and inhibiting the formation of carcinogenic compounds. 

Recommended intake of plant sterols 

Studies have shown that consumption of 2 grams (2,000 mg) of plant sterols per day reduces total cholesterol and LDL lipoproteins by 10-20% in the blood. Higher intake of phytosterols than recommended 2 g per day does not show additional hypocholesterolemic effect. 

However, do not exceed the dose of 3 grams (3000 mg) of plant sterols per day due to the possibility of interfering with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. It has been proven that the reduction of cholesterol by phytosterols leads to a lower absorption of fat-soluble compounds such as lycopene, β-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin D. 

Enriched products and dietary supplements 

The recommended daily dose of phytosterols is almost impossible to consume with natural products. Therefore, it is recommended to eat products enriched with plant sterols among people with an increased level of total blood cholesterol. On the Polish market, phytosterols are enriched with min. margarines, oils, yoghurts, cheese and milk. There are also dietary supplements containing plant sterols on the market. 

Plant sterols show pro-health activity. They lower the level of total cholesterol and LDL lipoproteins in the blood by inhibiting their absorption in the gastrointestinal tract, thus lowering the risk of atherosclerosis. However, the dose of 3 g of phytosterols per day should not be exceeded due to possible lowering of the level of min. β-carotene, lycopene and vitamin E. For this reason, products enriched with plant sterols and dietary supplements containing phytosterols should be used additionally only by people who have been diagnosed with elevated cholesterol in the blood. People with unhampered levels of cholesterol should provide phytosterols from natural sources such as vegetable oils (by choosing unrefined oils, cold-pressed oils), nuts, almonds, vegetables, fruits and through the addition of herbs and spices to dishes. 

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You can read also: Nuts – learn about their health properties

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