Plant sterols, or phytosterols, are a group of more than 200 steroid compounds found in plants which are similar in structure to the cholesterol in animal fats. Plant sterols have been officially endorsed in many areas as beneficial in reducing cholesterol and reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease.
The richest natural sources of plant sterols are vegetable oils and their derivative products, followed by nuts, particularly peanuts. Whole grains and legumes are particularly good for sterols, especially in the bran husk, so things like wheat germ have a high concentration. Vegetables (especially brassicas like broccoli and brussels sprouts), fruit, berries and cereal products are not so rich a source, but tend to be eaten in greater quantity, and can increase sterol intake.
Plant sterols have documented effects in reducing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and have been commercially available for some time as dietary supplements and food additives. Some varieties of orange juice, energy bars, yogurt drinks, mayonnaise and margarines have plant sterols added, and can help lower LDL cholesterol by up to 15%, based on a recommended daily intake of at least two grams. Cooking, milling and refining can reduce the sterol content, so eating raw is better.