The truth about phytosterols

You may have heard of phytosterols, which are plant-based sterols believed to reduce the assimilation of cholesterol by the organism, and thus lower the risk of heart disease and other health risks associated with high levels of the “bad” cholesterol in the blood.

The phytosterols are commonly added to dairy products, and have become popular among health conscious people in the US and around the globe.

The real question is – are they as effective for lowering the threat of coronary problems as it was initially believed?

The phytosterols have a structure like cholesterol molecules, and are sterols in the cell membranes of plants. Plant cells have different types of sterols, the most common types being: sitosterols, campesterols and stigmasterols. It turns out though the human organism prefers cholesterol and allows more of it to enter the blood stream as compared to the limited amount of phytosterols which enter through the intestines.

The healthy plant sterols are found in a wide assortment of plant, such as in healthy fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds.

Actually, vegetable oils and margarines contain high levels of phytosterols too. And with the modern diet in the western world with all the vegetable oils which are being added into processed foods, it means that humans are consuming more phytosterols than before. Cereals are rich in plant sterols as well.

So, is it actually true that margarines which have added phytosterols are as healthy as their producers claim they are, and can they really help minimize the risk of heart disease?

Studies have established that yes, phytosterols do help lower the “bad” cholesterol levels by about 10% after daily consumption of 2-3 grams for about a month, especially for subjects with high LDL cholesterol levels who were taking statin drugs.

But the bigger question is – whether reducing the cholesterol levels actually prevents heart disease or merely reduces the danger of developing such serious health conditions.

Some studies have actually proven the opposite – that the consumption of phytosterols can amplify the risk of suffering from a stroke, a heart attack or another dangerous and even fatal condition related to coronary disease. Other studies performed on lab animals claim that the increased phytosterol consumption causes a buildup of plaque in the human blood vessels, which causes a greater risk of suffering a stroke, heart attack or other serious health conditions.

These are just some of the studies which have been refuting the theory of the health benefits of phytosterols, but it has to be noted that the American Heart Association still recommends consuming phytochemicals to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Other health institutions and associations from other parts of the world do not fully agree with this recommendation though. For example, both the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the French Food Standards Agency as well as the German Drug Commission have been recommending against the intake of phytosterols as a heart disease prevention measure.

Apart from the dilemma surrounding the use of phytochemicals as preventive measures against heart disease, there also seems to be another problem with the consumption of these sterols for people who suffer from sitosterolemia, which is a rare genetic condition causing the absorption of too much phytosterols in the bloodstream, which increases the plaque in the arteries and thus the risk of suffering from coronary problems and disease. Plus this over-absorption can also lead to dangerous problems for the human liver as well.

While the disputes surrounding the actual benefits of phytosterols for decreasing heart disease risk seem to be ongoing, more scientists and experts are agreeing on the fact that phytosterols may actually lower the risk of developing lung, stomach, breast and ovarian cancer. No actual proof backing this statement has been uncovered yet.

In general, we may conclude that eating fresh and organic veggies, fruits, seeds and legumes is definitely a healthy choice, but the unusually high amounts of the artificially added phytosterols in margarine, vegetable oil and other fortified or processed foods is not as healthy as it used to be believed. In actuality, the over-consumption can actually have an unfavorable effect on the organism and in fact increase the danger of suffering a stroke, a heart attack or developing coronary disease.

Mediterranean diet, sandwitch

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