Plant sterols help lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, commonly referred to as bad cholesterol, because their chemical structure is very similar to that of LDL cholesterol.This structural similarity prevents the intestines from absorbing dietary cholesterol into the bloodstream, states the Joslin Diabetes Center. Instead, the cholesterol passes through the intestine and is eliminated in the body's waste, according to WebMD.
Plant sterols naturally occur in small amounts in foods such as legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. Manufacturers also add plant sterols to foods such as cereal and margarine. Other foods that sometimes contain added sterols include yogurt, juices, milk, salad dressings and cooking oils. However, some experts recommend getting plant sterols through whole foods rather than through the use of additives, states WebMD.
The cholesterol-lowering effect of plant sterols is well documented by research, explains WebMD. For this reason, the Food and Drug Administration allows manufacturers of products that contain sterols to make health claims, such as "heart-healthy" on their packaging.
The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends 2 grams of plant sterols per day for a person with high cholesterol. However, the American Heart Association states that added sterols are appropriate only for those who have had a heart attack or who need to lower their cholesterol, states WebMD.