The other day I saw someone refer to phytosterols as cholesterol from plants. No wonder people are confused about what foods contain cholesterol. I always see labels on foods proudly proclaiming “No Cholesterol” and cringe because of course foods that contain only plant matter (e.g. french fries, pop) don’t contain cholesterol. Cholesterol only comes from animal-based foods.
Plant sterols, while the plant equivalent of cholesterol, are not actually cholesterol. Cholesterol is a form of sterol, phytosterols are sterols found in plants. Plant sterols in our diets primarily come from vegetable oils but they can also be found in other plant-based foods such as nuts, grains, and legumes. According to Health Canada “Eating up to 3 grams of plant sterols as part of the daily diet increases the removal of cholesterol from the body.” The cholesterol removed is LDL (aka the “bad” cholesterol). Plant sterols have no effect on HDL (aka the “good” cholesterol).
You may have seen special margarine (or other foods) fortified with plant sterols. These foods may help to reduce your LDL when consumed at the appropriate dosage. However, they tend to come with a pretty hefty price tag, and who really wants to consume 3 teaspoons of margarine a day? As with any nutrient, while you may see a benefit from using these fortified foods, it’s probably better to get your sterols from foods that naturally contain them. As there are more than 200 types of phytosterols, it’s difficult to determine exactly how much foods naturally contain. Your best bets are to regularly consume a variety of whole grain foods, nuts, seeds, extra-virgin olive oil, as well as plenty of vegetables. There are other nutrients, vitamins, and minerals in whole foods that are important to maintaining good health.