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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6 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).

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