The Inclusion Of Plant Sterols

2022, May 22    

The concept of plant sterols are nothing new, and most people have likely tried margarine that contains them as a means to lower bad cholesterol. With the number of fast-food restaurants and takeaways increasing and cardiovascular disease being one of the main causes of death and disability in the UK, I've been thinking as of late about their inclusion in only a subset of foods, and if that might change in the future.

With your common high-street takeaway containing more than its fair share of cholesterol, it does pose an interesting question... Why doesn't more food contain sterols? Could it be the cost that is the inhibitor, is it for medical reasons, or is it something more? In thinking about this I looked at the cost of sterol tablets which for high-strength doses at retail prices works out to be around 11 pence to the general public (no doubt less if buying in bulk for business). Price it would seem isn't a factor.

Next comes the medical reasons, which seemingly is OK for the majority of people according to the British Heart Foundation (link removed as no longer valid). Not suitable for the breastfeeding, pregnant, or children under 5 years of age, but seemingly suitable for others. Separation of food with those criteria could be somewhat challenging, but one would hope that those falling into those categories aren't consuming your typical grease-covered burgers.

Finally we get to the something more, specifically the perception of the addition. Using margarine as an example, for as long as I can remember it has been portrayed as the healthy alternative to butter. Adding sterols to this makes sense as not only does it benefit from lower fat but also has an additive to help reduce your cholesterol at the same time, a win-win in reality given it's a substitute to an unhealthy alternative designed to improve your health.

With your typical fast-food the perception is somewhat different, as adding sterols to a greasy burger is in effect admitting that it is unhealthy and that this is a last resort in trying to improve the situation. I'd say this would also add a false sense of security to many, who would believe that because the sterols are in the food it negates the risk of the food itself. While the ASA would likely be on the offensive here (rightly so) to try to make the reality clearer, the truth isn't always what we want to hear.

Perhaps then there is a middle-ground that isn't yet to be leveraged, as the shades of grey within the middle could be targeted. How about some of these potential food options:

  • Salad dressing that contains sterols to make you feel better about the chicken/bacon in your salad
  • Burger buns containing sterols but being unspecific about what burgers should go with them
  • Milkshakes using skimmed milk (but heavy on the ice cream) containing sterols to market them as being more healthy

Any company looking to include sterols in the food has to determine the best way to position the addition, as the admission that a food/drink is so bad it requires them isn't good for sales (yes, there is such a thing as bad press). Sadly I suspect that in the future we will see them added to more foods rather than what is the correct approach; a balanced diet, regular exercise, no smoking, and cutting down on alcohol. All is easier said than done, but nothing is easy with the after-effects of CVD.

In reading about this to see what had been said/done about this previous I found an interesting article here that shows that even in 2010 this was being considered/proposed. It's interesting to see that this hasn't progressed further though I suspect that will change in time. As competition becomes more fierce it may be that the inclusion of plant sterols in takeaways becomes a differentiator/selling point.

Seeing that one of the major supermarkets has now started selling beef mince that is comprised of 30% vegetables shows that our diets are such that we need to hide vegetables in meat, which as much as it may be marketed as a healthy alternative, in reality it isn't (and is a disguise for a larger problem).