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“Healthy” Sterol Products Intended to Lower Cholesterol, but May Cause Heart Disease (October 1, 2012)

Buyers who choose food that's marketed to improve their cardiovascular health and lower cholesterol levels could be in for an unpleasant surprise. According to a European safety review performed at the request of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, or BfR, these specialty foods could actually be dangerous due to unexpected side effects caused by their active ingredients. Consuming these products should be accompanied with periodic cholesterol testing and other tests used to assess cardiac risk such as a meassurement of CRP and homocysteine levels. 

Sterols and Food Marketing

Health food products that contain plant steroid alcohols and stanoid esters may be intended to improve heart health, but they may actually be hurting it. The BfR asked for a safety review on these plant-derived substances by the European Food Safety Authority. That's because there's some concern that they could result in an increased risk of heart disease.

Sterols naturally come from a wide range of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and oils. Stanols are derived from these substances, and both are added to products that are advertised for reducing cholesterol. The theory is that the sterols and stanols will block the uptake of cholesterol, keeping it out of the blood. Unfortunately, consuming products that contain these substances can cause significant cardiovascular problems, especially in young patients with no history of high cholesterol.

What the Studies Say

A study by the University Eye Clinic of Maastricht in the Netherlands showed that patients who consumed sterol and stanol-enriched margarines had an increase in the diameter of retinal venules, tiny blood vessels in the eye. This change has been associated with damage to the cardiovascular system by some experts. Other evidence that suggests sterols and stanols might be dangerous was published in the June 2011 edition of the Journal Cardiovascular Research.

This study was performed on mice that were fed conventional diets, diets enhanced with sterols, and diets enhanced with stanols. The animals that were fed sterol diets showed an increase in immune cells that encouraged the development of thicker artery walls in response to fatty material accumulation. Mice that received both high sterol and high stanol diets had a decreased ability to relax the walls of the blood vessels, which is associated with cardiovascular damage.