DEAR PEGGY: I use a light margarine spread that claims to reduce cholesterol in cooking and the full-fat variety for baking. Is this a good choice, and how can I measure the full-fat variety for baking when a recipe calls for tablespoons, etc? —E. W., Forest, Virginia
With a trip to the grocery store, you'll find many products, such as margarine spreads, orange juice and granola bars, that claim to help reduce cholesterol. Studies show that consuming foods containing plant sterols and stanols in the right amounts can help decrease cholesterol. However, they must be part of a diet that's already low in saturated fat and cholesterol—an important note that's often missed in the fine print.
To benefit, you also have to eat a certain amount of these foods each day. According to the FDA, a total of at least 3.4 grams of plant stanol esters or 1.3 grams of plant sterol esters spread over two meals may reduce the risk of heart disease. Not all of the products on the market have enough sterol or stanol esters to make a difference, so you really need to take a close look at the label.
Keep in mind: If you have high cholesterol, using these products can help control it. But if you're healthy, they're most likely not worth the added cost over regular margarine spreads.
To measure spreads for use in recipes, press the spread into measuring spoons or measuring cups, making sure to press out all of the air pockets.
For more information on plant sterols and stanols and their effects on lowering cholesterol, make sure to check out the October/November 2008 issue of Healthy Cooking.