Phytosterols in human nutrition

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Phytosterols are cholesterol-like molecules found in all plant foods, with the highest concentrations occurring in vegetable oils. They are absorbed only in trace amounts but inhibit the absorption of intestinal cholesterol including recirculating endogenous biliary cholesterol, a key step in cholesterol elimination. Natural dietary intake varies from about 167-437 mg/day. Attempts to measure biological effects in feeding studies have been impeded by limited solubility in both water and fat. Esterification of phytosterols with long-chain fatty acids increases fat solubility by 10-fold and allows delivery of several grams daily in fatty foods such as margarine. A dose of 2 g/day as the ester reduces low density lipoprotein cholesterol by 10%, and little difference is observed between Δ5-sterols and 5α-reduced sterols (stanols). Phytosterols can also be dispersed in water after emulsification with lecithin and reduce cholesterol absorption when added to nonfat foods. In contrast to these supplementation studies, much less is known about the effect of low phytosterol levels in the natural diet. However, reduction of cholesterol absorption can be measured at a dose of only 150 mg during otherwise sterol-free test meals, suggesting that natural food phytosterols may be clinically important. Current literature suggests that phytosterols are safe when added to the diet, and measured absorption and plasma levels are very small. Increasing the aggregate amount of phytosterols consumed in a variety of foods may be an important way of reducing population cholesterol levels and preventing coronary heart disease.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)533-549
Number of pages17
JournalAnnual Review of Nutrition
StatePublished - 2002


  • Cholesterol
  • Diet
  • LDL
  • Lipoproteins
  • Sitostanol
  • Sitosterol
  • Stanols


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