by Marion Nestle
Nov 22 2021

Industry-funded study: plant sterols

This one was sent to me by Sara Henriques Martins, a nutritionist from Portugal.

She writes: “I came across an interesting study about the effects of phytosterols on lowering blood cholesterol  which was funded by Danone, a company that sells Danacol, a drink that is sold with this exact purpose.”

The study: Phytosterols, Cholesterol Control, and Cardiovascular Disease.    Andrea Poli, Franca Marangoni, Alberto Corsini, Enzo Manzato, Walter Marrocco, Daniela Martini, Gerardo Medea,  Francesco Visioli.  Nutrients. 202113(8), 2810;

Method: “A panel of experts with diverse medical and scientific backgrounds was convened by NFI—Nutrition Foundation of Italy—to critically evaluate and summarize the literature available on the topic, with the goal of providing medical doctors and all health professionals useful information to actively govern the use of phytosterols in the context of plasma cholesterol control.”
Conclusion: “Functional foods or supplements containing phytosterols are effective in controlling plasma LDL cholesterol levels if used appropriately.  These products must be taken on a daily basis.”
Funding: “The preparation of this paper has been made possible by an unrestricted grant from Danone S.p.A. The sponsor had no role in the preparation and finalization of the manuscript, and in the decision to publish it.”
Conflicts of Interest: “A.P. and F.M. are the Chairman and Head of Research, respectively, of NFI—Nutrition Foundation of Italy, a non-profit organization partially supported by Italian and non-Italian Food Companies. All other authors declare no conflict of interest associated with this publication.”
Comment: Danone does indeed make Danacol, a yogurt-based phytosterol supplement.  Such supplements, when taken daily, have been associated with cholesterol reduction for years.  In 2009, for example, at Danone’s request, the European Food Safety Authority assessed the research on Danacol and concluded that “a cause and effect relationship has been established between the dietary intake of phytosterols and lowering of LDL-cholesterol.”  The Nutrition Foundation of Italy has so many industry members that it can be considered an industry front group.  Food products containing phytosterols are available in the United States, but tend to be more expensive than comparable products without phytosterols, and it’s not clear whether consuming them lowers blood cholesterol enough to reduce heart disease risk.  Danone, obviously, would like to sell more Danacol.  Hence: its grant to this group.  

Reference: For a summary of research on the “funding effect”—the observation that research sponsored by food companies almost invariably produces results favorable to the sponsor’s interests but that recipients of industry funding typically do not recognize its influence—see my book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.