Safety evaluation of phytosterol esters. Part 1. Assessment of oestrogenicity using a combination of in vivo and in vitro assays

Food Chem Toxicol. 1999 Jan;37(1):13-22. doi: 10.1016/s0278-6915(98)00101-x.


Phytosterols are natural constituents of the human diet, and as part of an extensive programme of safety evaluation studies investigating their use as a novel food ingredient, the possible oestrogenic effects of phytosterols have been investigated using a combination of in vitro and in vivo assays. Competitive binding with the immature rat uterine oestrogen receptor (ER) has been used to measure the ability of phytosterols to bind to ERs while the transcriptional activation of oestrogen-responsive genes has been examined in an oestrogen-inducible yeast screen. Phytosterols did not display any activity in these in vitro assays. Uterotrophic assays have been conducted to investigate the potential for phytosterols to elicit an oestrogenic response when administered orally to immature female rats (n = 10) at doses of 0, 5, 50 or 500 mg/kg/day for 3 consecutive days. Phytosterols (a well characterized mixture of beta-sitosterol, campesterol and stigmasterol) and phytosterol esters (the previous phytosterol mixture esterified with fatty acids from sunflower oil) did not exhibit oestrogenic activity in the immature female rat using uterine wet weight as the endpoint. Beta-oestradiol (0.4 mg/kg/day) consistently produced a significant increase in uterus weights. Coumestrol (a known phytoestrogen) was also tested as a weak positive control and produced a dose response at doses of 20, 40 and 80 mg/kg/day in the uterotrophic assay. In conclusion, we have shown that phytosterols do not bind to the ER and do not stimulate transcriptional activity of the human ER in a recombinant yeast strain. In addition, there was no indication of oestrogenicity from the uterotrophic assay when the material was administered by oral gavage to immature female rats.

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Oral
  • Animals
  • Binding, Competitive
  • Cholesterol / administration & dosage
  • Cholesterol / analogs & derivatives
  • Cholesterol / pharmacology
  • Coumestrol / pharmacology
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Esters
  • Estradiol / pharmacology
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal / administration & dosage
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal / metabolism
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Organ Size / drug effects
  • Phytosterols / administration & dosage
  • Phytosterols / metabolism
  • Phytosterols / pharmacology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Receptors, Estrogen / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / drug effects
  • Sitosterols / administration & dosage
  • Sitosterols / pharmacology
  • Stigmasterol / administration & dosage
  • Stigmasterol / pharmacology
  • Uterus / anatomy & histology
  • Uterus / drug effects*


  • Esters
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal
  • Phytosterols
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Sitosterols
  • Estradiol
  • campesterol
  • gamma-sitosterol
  • Cholesterol
  • Stigmasterol
  • Coumestrol