Plant sterols may be the real danger

Because cholesterol is found only in animal products, more and more people have been turning away from meat and towards eating foods from plants.

But chole-sterol is only one of a whole family of sterols. Cholesterol is found only in animals; the other sterols are found in plants. It is these that are used to make cholesterol-lowering margarines, spreads, yogurts and other products. However eating these cholesterol-lowering products might not be such a good idea.

Dr J Plat and colleagues at Maastricht University's Department of Human Biology in the Netherlands, say that these plant sterols may actually be more important as a cause of heart disease than cholesterol.

Because plant sterols are structurally related to cholesterol, Plat and colleagues examined whether oxidized plant sterols (oxyphytosterols) could be identified in human blood and soy-based fat emulsions. They could: Approximately 1.4% of the plant sterol, Sitosterol, in blood was oxidised. This may not seem very much, but it is 140 times as much as the 0.01% oxidatively modified cholesterol normally seen in human blood. The same was also found in two soy emulsions.[1]

If any sterols are to blame for atherosclerosis, plant sterols are much more likely candidates than chole-sterol because the popular idea that animal products, specifically protein, cholesterol, and saturated fatty acids, somehow factor in causing atherosclerosis, stroke, and/or heart disease is not supported by any available data, including the field of lipid biochemistry.[2-5]

On this point, it is interesting to note that Dr Ancel Keys, whose 1953 hypothesis began the fatty-diet-causes-heart-disease dogma did not recommend cutting down on animal fats. He recommended cutting vegetable oils.


1. Plat J, et al. Oxidized plant sterols in human serum and lipid infusions as measured by combined gas-liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. J Lipid Res 2001; 42: 2030-2038.
2. Ravnskov U. The Cholesterol Myths. New Trends Publishing Inc, Washington DC, 2000. p 109.
3. Enig M. Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer on Fats and Cholesterol. Bethesda Press; Maryland, 2000, 76-81.
4. Smith R, Pinckney E. Diet, Blood Cholesterol, and Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review of the Literature. Vector Enterprises, California, 1991
5. George V. Mann, ed. Coronary Heart Disease: The Dietary Sense and Nonsense. Veritas Society, London, 1993.

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Last updated: December 9, 2011