Recently, cholesterol-lowering margarines have started to appear in grocery stores throughout America. These products contain either of two similar compounds, sterol esters (derived from vegetable oils, soybean and corn) or stanol esters (derived from wood pulp.) When used as directed by a physician, the new margarines may help lower LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins or "bad cholesterol") for some individuals. Elevated levels of LDL cholesterol have been associated with an increased risk of heart attack.
"The new margarines provide us with another tool to help lower elevated levels of LDL cholesterol, especially when consumed as part of a health plan that includes physical activity and a balanced diet," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., member of the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee and professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston.
"However, it is important to note that these new products can only lower LDL cholesterol levels about 7-10 percent. They should be combined with a diet that is low in saturated fat which comes from animal sources, such as butter, meat and milk and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products and lean meat. Additionally, for many people, medications such as the cholesterol-lowering drugs may still provide the best means of lowering LDL cholesterol levels.
"Individuals who know that their LDL cholesterol is elevated should consult with their health care professional before including the new margarines in their cholesterol lowering plan, especially if they are already taking medication. Individuals should not stop taking their medication in the mistaken belief that the new margarines can replace the medication," says Lichtenstein.
Children and adults who have not been diagnosed as having elevated levels of LDL cholesterol should not consume the product as a "preventive" measure. While cholesterol lowering margarines may be used as part of a treatment plan, they do not prevent the underlying cause of elevated LDL cholesterol levels. Cholesterol, a soft, fat-like substance, gets into the blood stream in two ways.
The majority is manufactured in the liver, and a smaller amount can be ingested in foods derived from animals, such as meat, full fat milk, butter and eggs. When there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, it is deposited inside the blood vessels, where it can build up to hard deposits and cause atherosclerosis, the disease process that underlies heart attacks.
"For people with elevated levels of cholesterol, the new margarines can provide an effective 'boost' to a LDL-cholesterol-lowering plan prescribed by a physician that includes a healthy diet, physical activity, and in some individuals, medication," says Lichtenstein.