A few days ago I was reading a pamphlet on heart-healthy eating, which recommended eating 2 grams of plant stanols every day.
What are they? What foods are they in?
I’ve never heard of them before or seen them on a food label, so how do I know how many grams I’m eating?
– Mike Appenbrink
New York, NY
Plant stanols are naturally-occurring compounds in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Stanols are closely linked to sterols; they both fall under the “phytosterol” umbrella (phytosterols have a similar molecular structure to cholesterol, and compete with it for absorption).
Phytosterols have been clinically shown to lower LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol while keeping HDL (healthy) cholesterol levels steady, thereby improving our LDL:HDL ratio. Here’s the catch — in order to get those health benefits, you need to consume two grams of them a day. They are present in hundreds of plant-based foods, but in miniscule amounts. You would need to eat an excessive amount of calories to consume two grams.
Cue companies like Finland’s Raisio Group, which formulated Benecol, a proprietary (ka-ching!) blend of stanols that can now be found in handful of processed products — from margarines and corn chips to orange juice and cereal.
So, yes, long-term daily intake of two grams of stanols can help reduce LDL cholesterol by an average of fifteen percent, but I don’t consider stanol/sterol-fortified margarines and milks a necessity in a heart-healthy diet.
There are many other things you can do to improve blood lipid profiles: consume at least 25 grams of fiber a day, prioritize monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, limit added sugars and refined flours, and avoid trans fats.
Whole foods may contain negligible amounts of sterols, but they contain many heart-healthy phytonutrients.
Something tells me the educational materials you read were written or sponsored by one of the big stanol companies. My advice? Eat real food — there are plenty of benefits to be reaped.