Cholesterol in Plants and Vegan Food

Question:

Regarding your cholesterol article, I was wondering which plants contain cholesterol and how much. I saw some biscuits that contained .4 mg of cholesterol per 100 g of the product. The company claimed all ingredients were plant based, but there was quite a stir in a vegan forum regarding that cholesterol amount. Is there an article you can refer me to.

Answer:

Unbeknownst to most people, the labels on packaged food normally do not represent a laboratory analysis where the various nutrients have been directly measured. Rather, the company takes a list of ingredients and plugs them into a software package which then produces the label based on a combination of all the ingredients and serving size. If one of the ingredients they plug in typically contains cholesterol, then it will contain cholesterol in the result.

As a rule, the USDA nutrient database, which most of these nutrition label generating software applications are based on, just assumes a cholesterol amount of zero for plant foods. Take a look at raw baby carrots at PeaCounter. It lists cholesterol as zero, but it also lists the “data points” as zero. In other words, they didn’t measure it, they just assumed it to be zero.

I don’t know all the ins and outs of the process of producing labels for all foods, and it would seem to me that normally, for biscuits, the company would be plugging in basic nutrients and if they were of plant origin, they would not register any cholesterol on a nutrition label. But in this case, I would guess that the .4 mg of cholesterol shown on this supposedly vegan food was simply a result of inaccurate ingredients plugged into the software. It definitely wasn’t that they included enough plant foods with cholesterol that the cholesterol actually registered in a laboratory analysis.

Here is an article that lists the cholesterol amounts in some plant foods:

Behrman EJ, Gopalan V. Cholesterol and plants. The Journal of Chemical Education. 2005. 82(12):1791. | link to pre-publication PDF

And here are a few of the listings for comparison:

Olive oil, .5-2 mg/kg
Soybean oil, 29 mg/kg
Coconut oil, 14 mg/kg
Egg yolk, 15 g/kg
Butter, 2.5 g/kg

Note that when you move from the plant oils to the animal foods, the units change from mg/kg to g/kg (and a g is 1,000 times more than a mg).

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12 Responses to “Cholesterol in Plants and Vegan Food”

  1. Derek Says:

    That linked article is interesting but looks like a fuzzy interpretation equating sitosterol to cholesterol, much like many people equate plant sterols with various hormones (claiming soy is full of estrogen, for example). Is sitosterol really a type of cholesterol or is it just a plant analogue, similar but not the same? Otherwise if you add up every meal with oil then “cholesterol” intake could be pretty huge…but of a type that actually reduces cholesterol. The article even notes: here’s what cholesterol looks like, and here’s what sitosterol looks like, suggesting they are related but calling sitosterol cholesterol and thereby saying that “some plants have cholesterol” doesn’t seem right even in a technical sense.

  2. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Sitosterol is not cholesterol. I was trying to cut some corners by just linking to that table of cholesterol levels in plants rather than creating one myself, but I should have known that cutting corners doesn’t pay! I’ve updated the post to avoid linking to that article.

  3. Derek Says:

    Thanks for the clarification. Very intersting. I’ve been vegan for over 20 years and never knew that plants had any actual cholesterol.

    For me it’s much easier to grasp the difference between plant and animal foods if all the numbers are expressed in milligrams/kg:

    Olive oil, 0.5-2
    Soybean oil, 29
    Coconut oil, 14
    Egg yolk, 15,000
    Butter, 2,500

  4. Summer Says:

    Hello Jack,

    I work for a company that makes software for creating nutrition labels. I also happen to be vegan 🙂

    You’re correct in your assumption about how software creates nutrition labels. All ingredients are entered into a “recipe” and the program adds up all the ingredient data & divides by serving size. Another thing to consider, though, is that generally, companies apply the FDA rounding rules to each nutrient on the label. In this case, the label should have said 0, since anything less than 5mg of cholesterol can be represented as 0. Here is a link to the rounding rules for more information:
    http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/FoodLabelingGuide/ucm064932.htm

    I’d be happy to clarify my comment, or answer any other questions about nutrition labels.

  5. Cal Says:

    “That linked article is interesting but looks like a fuzzy interpretation equating sitosterol to cholesterol.” I don’t think you actually read the article. The article clearly states that future textbooks should state the following: “Of these, perhaps sitosterol, which differs from cholesterol by an ethyl substituent at position 24, is the most common. But plants also contain cholesterol both free and esterified.” and then continues to say “It is clear that cholesterol and its esters are important constituents of plant membranes and that this has been known for more than thirty years.” How are you getting that this study is “equating sitosterol to cholesterol?” It is saying the opposite of that. Actually read the article instead of skimming through it. It almost seems like you are intentionally dismissing what the study actually states rather directly in the first paragraph nonetheless.

  6. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Cal,

    I took the link to the article Derek was referring to off the post and replaced it with the link to a different article (the PDF you’re referring to).

  7. VeganHero Says:

    The problem with all this is…. Our brains desperately need cholesterol to function and the less it gets the more it shrinks. Much new data supports this as problematic for us vegans

  8. Jack Norris RD Says:

    VeganHero,

    What new data are you referring to? Is it in humans?

  9. Edvis Says:

    To:
    VeganHero and Jack Norris RD

    How about 10th grade Anatomy and Physiology manual 🙂

    Or simply google function of cholesterol and see what it does. I am not vegan, but i research nutrition a lot, and i listen to a lot of healthy vegans and vegetarians. My only worry is where do you get saturated fat and cholesterol from in your diet?

  10. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Edvis,

    Most plant fats are a combination of a range of different fats; it’s just that in plant oils, saturated fat tends to be on the very low end. You can see a breakdown of the different fats in different plant foods here:

    http://veganhealth.org/articles/fatstable

    If you want a large amount of saturated fat, coconut oil ( http://peacounter.com/foods_pub.php?ndb=4047 ) and cashews are relatively high.

    As for cholesterol, most people’s bodies make all they need.

  11. Oliver Slay Says:

    I have been a strict vegan for 25 yrs …

    my total cholesterol is 201 mg/dL… my brother and my mother’s are about 350 or greater… but they have FH… the question I don’t know the answer to is whether I have masked FH… but since it’s in the healthy range, it doesn’t seem to worry anyone…

    I certainly didn’t get all that cholesterol from my diet. This level of cholesterol was made by my body (endogenous cholesterol synthesis).

    It would be useful to compile literature that looked at the effect of different specific fatty acids on cholesterol production… i.e. this from 1997:
    “Palmitic acid effect on lipoprotein profiles and endogenous cholesterol synthesis or clearance in humans”
    http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/APJCN/6/1/6.htm

    “Stearic acid has little effect on plasma lipid levels, exerting a neutral effect similar to that of some mono-unsaturates, while lauric and myristic acid-rich fats have potent cholesterol-raising effects” [about 50% of coconut oil is lauric (also in durian, betelnuts, macadamias to lesser degree); myristic in nutmeg (75% of the nutmeg butter) and coconut and durian fruit. Both also in mother’s milk and cow’s milk etc.]

    Knowing this a vegan could take cholesterol-raising fatty acids when cholesterol is low.. and avoid them when it’s too high…

    Personally I just eat a variety of foods.. I cycle through different oils when I cook.. rapeseed, coconut, olive, soy… our body needs variety, and I don’t seem to need to worry about cholesterol..

  12. georgie Says:

    hi jack
    my cholesterol droppedwhen i went whole food plantbasedlow fat…for 2x6monthly blood testsbut now its jumped from 155 to 170?

    im very careful to follow dr esselstyns suggestion to restrict my fats to just the tablespoon of chia seeds and ground flax seed daily but im wondering whether adding these other products has proved problematic?
    eg i replacedchiaseeds with ground chia…and added 2big tablespoons of wheatgerm daily…1 heaped tsp turmeric and 1 of cinnamon…3tbsp fresh ginger….6 -7 fresh fruit per day insteadof recommended 3 and added 1 x brazil nut onceper week for selenium

    nothing else has changed …im slim..fit…no avocados…no other nuts or soy….lots of green salad…green and colouredsteamed vegies too…..

    wheatgerm is abithigherin fat…so isbrazil nut….chia powder more so than chia seeds…..as i have a45% LAD blockage imworried….any suggestions?….thx

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