Phytosterols are compounds found in many plants. They are a type of sterol, a specific class of chemical compound, and they are very similar to cholesterol, the type of sterol found in humans. In plants, phytosterols contribute to the structure of the cell membrane, just like cholesterol does in animals. These compounds have a number of interesting effects on the bodies of animals when they are ingested which have led to great interest in phytosterols and their potential applications.
While it may seem counterintuitive to ingest sterols to lower cholesterol, since cholesterol is just a type of sterol, phytosterols appear to actively block the absorption of cholesterol, which can lead to a reduction in levels of bad cholesterol. This, in turn, can reduce the accumulation of cholesterol in the body, reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems. Plant sterols confer these benefits while animal sterols such as those found in meat and animal products do not, illustrating the structural differences between these two groups of sterols.
Some studies have suggested that certain phytosterols can interfere with the cell membranes in animals, and that they can also alter the levels of certain hormones. Over 40 phytosterols have been identified by researchers, and numerous others are waiting for identification. The function of the known compounds in the body of humans is not fully understood, and there are some competing claims about phytosterols, with some people suggesting that they are highly beneficial while others recommend that they be avoided.
Foods rich in phytosterols include oils, nuts, and wheat germ. Many of these foods are recommended as part of a healthy diet which can lower levels of bad cholesterol. It is also possible to find products which have been fortified with phytosterols, with such products often containing health claims which are sometimes a topic of dispute in the medical community. These compounds are also used in products like skin care cream, with the goal of improving skin health.
People who eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly should get all of the nutrition they need and maintain their bodies in a state of balance. People who eat unbalanced diets which are too high or too low in various nutrients can experience health problems. It is unlikely that consuming more phytosterols alone would provide health benefits, although the consumption of phytosterol-rich foods might be beneficial because such foods contain a broad spectrum of nutritionally useful compounds.