After several experiments in the lab, Worawan Panpipat, a PhD student at the Department of Engineering, has identified a new chemical super compound that has a cholesterol lowering effect. She has just received the International AOCS (American Oil and Chemists’ Society) award for her research (Photo Henrik Olsen)
Plant sterols from e.g. fruit and vegetables hold the key to reducing blood cholesterol. But the natural content in a typical diet is far from sufficient. In the laboratories at Aarhus University, a young researcher has succeeded in producing a new, highly concentrated and easily absorbed substance with the same beneficial characteristics.
Around 400 tomatoes, 200 carrots or 150 apples – this is how much you need to eat to get the optimal cholesterol lowering effect via the natural content of plant sterols in your food. Therefore, researchers have spent decades working on the development of new chemical syntheses of plant sterol derivatives. Today almost all supermarkets in the West have a selection of good, functional food products that promise to reduce consumers’ blood cholesterol level.
The problem is that these products can be expensive. The chemical production of plant sterols is often based on expensive chemicals and usually requires a large amount of energy over a rather long reaction time.
Detective work in the laboratory
To solve these problems, a researcher at Aarhus University decided to try and develop a new, more effective and economically viable substance. Two years later after several hundred test reactions between a large number of different plant sterols, fatty acids and amino acids, she has discovered something that is attracting the attention of the functional food industry.
The new substance is both cheaper and more sustainable to manufacture compared to the known chemical variations of plant sterols. Also, it has a reaction time of just 12 hours, a very low consumption of activation energy during the creation process and a 90 percent utilisation of the substance from the reaction.
Better absorbed by the body
While natural plant sterols have low solubility and therefore are difficult for the intestines to absorb, the new synthetic substance has a molecular structure that ensures that the body has optimal access to it.
"A large part of the natural plant sterols pass through the digestive tract. The new substance is merely synthesised plant sterol with a molecular structure that significantly improves absorption in the body," explains Worawan Panpipat.
She has developed the substance in two synthesised variations. One that is soluble in fat and one that is soluble in water. In this way, it is possible to enrich more types of foods such as soft drinks and dairy products.
Defeats dangerous cholesterol
Excessive amounts of cholesterol in the blood expose many people to cardiovascular diseases which are among the most frequent cause of death today. This is because cholesterol can be deposited in the blood vessels when the body contains too much of it.
If the new substance makes it to the market, it can be a real alternative to medical treatment of one of the world’s greatest health problems. It works by outperforming the dangerous cholesterol in the battle to be absorbed by the body:
"The new substance binds to the limited number of cholesterol transporters in the cell wall of the intestines and it therefore seems to be able to prevent the so-called bad LDL cholesterol from being absorbed in the body", explains Worawan Panpipat.
Studies have shown that two grams of plant sterols per day lower the content of the bad cholesterol in the blood by around 10 percent. This corresponds to reducing the risk of heart disease by around 20 percent.