Do healthy people need to eat food with added plant sterols, like Flora pro-activ or Benecol? Plant sterols are currently being lauded as a natural, cholesterol-busting wonder ingredient, and can be found in several premium-price margarines, milk products and yogurts.

They are present naturally in small quantities in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals, beans, and other plant foods containing fats and oils, and they can be sold commercially as supplements or added as a component of ?functional' foods.

There are over 60 types of plant sterol, but the most common form is beta-sitosterol. Plant sterols are almost identical in chemical structure to cholesterol and are processed by the body in the same way.

They function as cholesterol-lowering agents in blood by blocking the absorption of cholesterol from food during digestion and also by blocking the re-absorption of cholesterol manufactured in the liver.

The American Heart Association warns that products with added plant sterols are intended for people who want or need to lower their blood cholesterol levels. It says that patients on cholesterol lowering medication should use these foods in consultation with their health care provider. In particular it advises that the foods may not be appropriate for children or for pregnant and breast-feeding women.

Randomised trials have shown that typical consumption of foods with added plant sterols (contributing an extra two to three grams of plant sterols each day) can also lower blood concentrations of valuable antioxidants, such as beta-carotene by about 25%, alphacarotene by 10%, and vitamin E by 8%, and people who are taking these products are urged to consume more fruit and vegetables to compensate for these losses.

Interestingly, most trials of the plant sterol enriched foods which show that they do have an effect on blood cholesterol do not directly compare eating these products with eating a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables, although the companies state that the benefits of the products are found when eaten ?as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle'.

But Flora tells us that once you start eating these products you shouldn't ever stop: ?Missing out on your daily intake of Flora proactive for a day or two will not cause a problem. However, remember that plant sterols will only actively prevent the absorption of cholesterol if consumed on a regular basis i.e. at least two meals a day is preferable.'??. CONTINUES????