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Cholesterol metabolism and serum non-cholesterol sterols: summary of 13 plant stanol ester interventions

Maarit Hallikainen1, Piia Simonen2 and Helena Gylling13*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition, Department of Clinical Nutrition, University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio, Finland

2 Heart and Lung Center, Helsinki University Hospital, Helsinki, Finland

3 Department of Medicine, Division of Internal Medicine, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland, P.O. BOX 700 FIN-00029 HUS, Finland

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Lipids in Health and Disease 2014, 13:72  doi:10.1186/1476-511X-13-72

Published: 27 April 2014



The efficacy and safety of plant stanols added to food products as serum cholesterol lowering agents have been demonstrated convincingly, but their effects on cholesterol metabolism and on serum non-cholesterol sterols is less evaluated. The aim of this study was to assess the validity of serum non-cholesterol sterols and squalene as bioindices of cholesterol synthesis and absorption, and to examine how the individual serum non-cholesterol sterols respond to consumption of plant stanols.


We collected all randomized, controlled plant stanol ester (STAEST) interventions in which serum cholestanol, plant sterols campesterol and sitosterol, and at least two serum cholesterol precursors had been analysed. According to these criteria, there was a total of 13 studies (total 868 subjects without lipid-lowering medication; plant stanol doses varied from 0.8 to 8.8 g/d added in esterified form; the duration of the studies varied from 4 to 52 weeks). Serum non-cholesterol sterols were assayed with gas–liquid chromatography, cholesterol synthesis with the sterol balance technique, and fractional cholesterol absorption with the dual continuous isotope feeding method.


The results demonstrated that during the control and the STAEST periods, the serum plant sterol/cholesterol- and the cholestanol/cholesterol-ratios reflected fractional cholesterol absorption, and the precursor sterol/cholesterol-ratios reflected cholesterol synthesis. Plant sterol levels were dose-dependently reduced by STAEST so that 2 g of plant stanols reduced serum campesterol/cholesterol-ratio on average by 32%. Serum cholestanol/cholesterol-ratio was reduced less frequently than those of the plant sterols by STAEST, and the cholesterol precursor sterol ratios did not change consistently in the individual studies emphasizing the importance of monitoring more than one surrogate serum marker.


Serum non-cholesterol sterols are valid markers of cholesterol absorption and synthesis even during cholesterol absorption inhibition with STAEST. Serum plant sterol concentrations decrease dose-dependently in response to plant stanols suggesting that the higher the plant stanol dose, the more cholesterol absorption is inhibited and the greater the reduction in LDL cholesterol level is that can be achieved.

Trial registration

Clinical Trials Register # NCT00698256 [Eur J Nutr 2010, 49:111-117]

LDL cholesterol; Cholesterol absorption; Cholesterol synthesis; Cholestanol; Campesterol; Sitosterol; Lathosterol; Desmosterol; Squalene